What Does The Overworked Shoulder Feel Like?

Shoulder pain and injuries are extremely prevalent, affecting up to 70% of people at some point in life. The highly mobile shoulder joint allows great flexibility of motion but is vulnerable to overuse injuries. Repeated exertions and motions can overwork the shoulder joint, muscles, tendons and other structures over time, leading to distinct symptoms. But what exactly does an overworked shoulder feel like? Here is an overview of the common sensations and experiences.


A dull, throbbing ache is one of the first signs of an overworked shoulder. This persists for hours or days after repetitive activity. It may localize to the front or top of the shoulder and often radiates down the upper arm as well.

Inflammation produces aching around the shoulder joint, in the muscular attachments near the joint, along the collarbone, and within the shoulder blade. Rotator cuff tendinitis manifests as a mild ache felt with overhead reaching or lifting motions. As inflammation worsens, the ache becomes more constant and disruptive.


A burning sensation may arise in the muscles surrounding an overworked shoulder joint. This indicates strain of the larger shoulder muscles like the deltoids. The burning feels similar to the sensation after performing strenuous strength training for the arms and shoulders.

An acute burning pain can also occur with muscle tears or pinched nerves resulting from overexertion. The heat and irritation arises as the muscles and nerves become damaged from excessive demands. Burning normally subsides after a period of rest.


Marked stiffness and loss of normal range of motion affects an overworked shoulder. Inflammation causes muscles and tendons to tighten up. Significant stiffness may occur after resting the shoulder overnight or for an extended period.

Gently moving the shoulder eases the stiffness somewhat, but full mobility requires warming up the tissues. Loss of overhead range of motion is particularly common with rotator cuff overuse. The shoulder may feel rigid and difficult to move freely.


Delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) frequently follows overworking the shoulder muscles. Activities requiring forceful, repeated exertions like weightlifting, sports, or manual labor put strain on the shoulder muscles.

DOMS causes tender, aching muscles that peak 1-3 days after the event that triggered it. Gentle stretching provides some relief. Soreness indicates small muscle tears from overexertion that require recovery time.


Shoulder overuse often causes weakness and fatigue. The involved muscles tire out easily with sustained activity. Lifting objects or performing overhead motions feels noticeably harder. Sudden weakness can also happen with an acute muscle tear or pinched nerve.

Due to injury or inflammation, the shoulder muscles simply cannot fire normally or handle their usual loads. Weakness may indicate a more severe overuse issue like a rotator cuff tear. Shoulder fatigue is the body’s warning sign to stop what you are doing.

Popping or Cracking

Repetitive shoulder motions can cause ligaments and tendons around the joint to stretch out. As they slide over bony or cartilage surfaces, this may produce an audible cracking or popping sound.

While not necessarily painful at first, popping indicates altered mechanics from overuse. If inflammation also affects the joint, popping may cause a pinching sensation. Rest usually quiets the sounds.

Catching or Locking Up

In advanced cases of shoulder overuse, a severely damaged rotator cuff or labrum tear can cause painful catching. When moving the arm, the shoulder may catch momentarily before clunking over the injured structures. Locking can also happen when torn tissues get lodged in the joint.

These episodes are very painful and debilitating. Catching or locking indicates significant overuse injuries requiring prompt medical attention. Surgery may be necessary to fix the torn structures.


Overworking the shoulder’s muscular and ligamentous stabilizers leads to increased looseness and instability. The shoulder joint no longer tracks and moves smoothly. Sudden sharp pain may occur with certain motions as instability allows abnormal impingement.

The shoulder feels sloppy or wobbly with certain movements. A feeling of sliding, slipping, or partial dislocation can happen. Instability exposes the joint to worsening cartilage damage and dislocation risks. Prompt stabilization is required.

Listen to Your Shoulder

Pay close attention to shoulder pain or dysfunction. Even mild symptoms can worsen to severe injury if overuse continues. An overworked shoulder feels strained, achy, stiff, weak, and fatigued. Heeding these warning signs and making prompt adjustments prevents more lasting shoulder damage. Don’t ignore or “work through” shoulder pain – give your body the rest it needs.