woman placing her hand on back of neck

Why Does My Shoulder Hurt When Reaching into the Back Seat?


There are often gender-specific reasons people come in for therapy, and shoulder pain is one of them. When dealing with the shoulder, men usually wind up finally dealing with their shoulder pain because they are unable to reach into their back pocket to get their wallets. Women finally decide to get their shoulder treated because they are no longer able to fasten their bra in the back. Does either of these scenarios sound like you?

Waiting until you cannot do either of these two things means that you have waited a long time to get your shoulder treated. Why do you feel pain shooting across your shoulder and arm? Let’s explore why you have shoulder pain and are unable to reach behind your back.

What Is Causing Your Shoulder Pain When Reaching Back?

Reaching behind your back — whether to get a wallet, reach into the back seat, or fasten a bra — is a very complex motion at the shoulder. Most people invent ways to get around the pain associated with this motion by slumping forward. This allows for a greater range of motion at the shoulder, but it also causes compensation and, ultimately, more problems.

Most people who have pain with moving their shoulder behind them often report a pinching feeling. This feeling is because there is actually a muscle — the infraspinatus — that is being pinched. If you continue to allow this rotator cuff muscle to be pinched, it can start to tear.

To avoid tearing, you want to roll your shoulders up and back and drop them down. This will allow for the muscle to have space to move. You may still get the pinching feeling, but this is because the muscle has become inflamed, and there is no more room for the muscle to move. But with your shoulders in the proper position, you are creating less tearing to the muscle.

Is a Rotator Cuff Tear Causing Your Shoulder Pain?

A tear in your rotator cuff is one of the reasons you can’t reach into the back seat without pain. Unfortunately, this is only the beginning of things you are not able to do.

People do not understand that most rotator cuff tears are not traumatic, meaning they do not result from lifting a lot of weight from the floor or from some car accident (though, in some cases, this may be why the muscle tore). Most of the rotator cuff tears happen because of a pinched muscle, which causes small tears. These tears can eventually cause the muscle to tear completely. The more you allow the pinching feeling to persist, the more likely a massive rotator cuff tear will develop. 

How do rotator cuff muscles tear? It’s a common occurrence in aging people simply due to a degeneration of the muscle and normal wear and tear. Poor posture can play a significant role in the development of rotator cuff tears as well.

You can find out more about rotator cuff tears in the following video:

How to Test for a Rotator Cuff Muscle Tear

One thing you can do to test if a muscle of the rotator cuff is involved is to reach your arm behind your back and place it, palm up, on your low back. If you are unable to do this without slumping forward, then this is a positive test, and you need to have your shoulder treated. If you are able to place your hand on your low back, palm facing away from the body, but it hurts, this is also a positive test, and you need to have your shoulder treated.

If you can place your arm on your low back, you should now be able to lift your arm off your back. If you are unable to lift your arm off your back, this is a positive test, indicating there is a problem with the rotator cuff. You will need to get it treated.

Could Your Shoulder Hurt Because of Rotator Cuff Impingement?

If your shoulder hurts when reaching backward or to the side, it may not be because of a muscle tear. It could be causing discomfort because you’ve developed rotator cuff impingement. This condition occurs when a bone spur forms on the front of your shoulder from repetitive movements. The bone spur irritates the rotator cuff, resulting in inflammation. Impingement is often diagnosed in people with labor-intensive jobs, such as construction workers or painters. If you suspect your discomfort is the result of impingement, you should seek treatment as soon as possible to avoid further damage.

How to Prevent Shoulder and Arm Pain When Reaching Backwards

Posture plays a large part in the shoulder getting better or worse. Positioning your shoulder in the correct posture by rolling your shoulders up and back and dropping them down allows the shoulder and the muscles to move correctly. If you continue to sit in poor posture while at your computer or while on your phone, it doesn’t matter what you do: shoulder and arm pain will develop and continue to get worse.

How to Fix Shoulder Pain

When your shoulder hurts due to a rotator cuff tear or impingement, you will want to seek out a physical therapist who can relieve the trigger points on the back of your shoulder. Then, they will run through specific exercises with you to strengthen the muscle. They will also prescribe techniques you can use at home to relieve your pain. The end goal will be to improve your shoulder mobility.

You can also use these exercises to relieve shoulder pain:

No “Ouch!” About It

If you have a pinching feeling when you reach into the back seat, you need physical therapy for shoulder pain to prevent this issue from developing further and requiring surgery. For rotator cuff therapy in Hatfield or Norristown, get in touch with Total Performance Physical Therapy. For rotator cuff and shoulder pain therapy in North Wales, call 215-997-9898 and ask to set up a free consultation with a doctor of physical therapy.


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We Have an Immediate Opening for a Physical Therapist in Harleysville. Resumes Can Be Sent to linda@totalperformancept.com

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