Shoulder impingements are common injuries that can take between a few weeks to 6 months to heal. In people with severe cases, this time can increase to a year.

Shoulder impingement syndrome, also known as swimmer’s shoulder or shoulder impingement, is a type of shoulder injury. It occurs when the rotator cuff, a set of muscles and tendons connecting the upper arm bone to the shoulder, rubs against the acromion, which is the top, outer edge of the shoulder blade.

As a person raises their arm, the space between these structures narrows. This can increase pressure to the bursa, fluid-filled sacs in the rotator cuff, causing irritation and resulting in impingement. Treatment options often involve rest and physical therapy. For most people, it typically takes a few months to recover from a shoulder impingement.

In this article, we explore shoulder impingement in more detail, including its recovery time, causes, and risk factors.

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Recovery from shoulder impingement typically spans a few weeks to months. However, for people with more serious cases, recovery could take up to a year for the shoulder to fully heal.

Usually, a person can tentatively resume usual activities. For many people, this can be within a few weeks after the injury occurs.

Regular communication and recommendations from a doctor or physiotherapist are imperative to avoid pushing too hard. Not following advice or treatment plans could hinder healing and lead to additional injuries.

The primary cause of shoulder impingement is the narrowing of the subacromial space, which can result from repetitive overhead activities, such as:

  • swimming
  • painting
  • hairdressing
  • volleyball
  • handball
  • carpentry

Older research suggests that structural problems, such as anatomical variations, may also contribute to impingement. Trauma or injuries to the shoulder, such as falling and landing on the shoulder, may also contribute to shoulder impingement.

Various risk factors can increase the likelihood of developing shoulder impingement, including:

  • Particular occupations or sports: Individuals who partake in activities that involve repetitive movements of the arm and shoulder, such as hairdressing, tennis, swimming, or baseball, are more likely to experience shoulder impingement.
  • Age: People who are 50 or older are more likely to develop an impingement than those who are younger.
  • Injured shoulder joint: If someone already has an existing shoulder injury, this can increase the risk of developing an impingement.
  • Shoulder anatomy: Some people may experience problems with the position or movement of their shoulder. As this can reduce space within the joint, people may be at a higher risk of symptoms following even slight swelling of the tendons.
  • Bone spurs: Bone spurs are projections of bone that grow off an existing bone. Bone spurs may irritate the surrounding tissue, which can lead to swelling and impingement.

Recognizing the symptoms of shoulder impingement can be important to ensure early intervention and reduce the risk of a longer-term injury.

Initial symptoms may be mild and can include:

  • discomfort radiating from the front of the shoulder to the side of the arm
  • pain occurring with activity and rest
  • sudden pain when lifting and reaching

Symptoms may increase in severity if the problem progresses. This can cause a person to experience more intense pain, weakness, and reduced movement in the affected shoulder. For example, they may experience difficulty undertaking activities that involve reaching behind their back or performing routine tasks involving arm movement.

An accurate diagnosis involves a thorough physical examination by a healthcare professional.

A diagnosis will initially involve a doctor asking questions about the pain, any history of prior injuries, and any steps taken to address the pain, such as taking anti-inflammatory medications or applying ice.

A person may then require a physical examination, in which a doctor will request they do some motion and strength tests. A doctor will do this on both sides to compare any differences in movement.

For some people, imaging tests, such as X-ray, MRI, or ultrasound scans may be necessary to visualize the shoulder’s internal structures. These tests help confirm the diagnosis, assess the extent of the damage, and rule out other potential causes of shoulder pain.

Treatment strategies for shoulder impingement typically begin with conservative approaches. For example, they may include:

  • anti-inflammatory medication
  • resting the shoulder
  • applying ice
  • stretching in a warm shower

It may take 6–8 weeks of treatment for a person to notice their shoulder feeling better.

Some people may require physical therapy. This will help them strengthen the muscles and stretch out the surrounding tissues of the shoulder joint. A person may also require an injection of cortisone to manage the pain and reduce inflammation.

If nonsurgical options are unsuccessful, a doctor may recommend surgery. The procedure will typically involve creating more space for the rotator cuff. A surgeon may remove the inflamed portion of the bursa and part of the acromion. If a person has other conditions present in the shoulder at the time of surgery that may contribute to impingement, the surgeon may also treat them.

After surgery, a doctor may recommend placing the arm in a sling to aid recovery. They will also provide a rehabilitation program. This will involve exercises to help regain range of motion in the shoulder and strength of the arm.

A person can do a few things to reduce the risk of developing shoulder impingement, including:

  • maintaining proper posture, especially during activities that involve overhead movements or lifting
  • incorporating shoulder-strengthening exercises into a regular workout routine
  • avoiding overuse or repetitive overhead activities that strain the shoulder
  • taking breaks during tasks involving prolonged arm elevation to minimize strain on the shoulder
  • stretching before and after exercise

Shoulder impingement syndrome can stem from various causes, including repetitive activities, structural abnormalities, or trauma.

Recovery time varies from several weeks to up to a year for some people. Most commonly, doctors recommend conservative treatments, such as rest and anti-inflammatory medication.

Preventive measures, such as maintaining good posture and avoiding overuse of the shoulder, can significantly reduce the risk of developing shoulder impingement.