Deltoid Pain: Causes, Treatment, Prevention 

Deltoid Pain: Causes, Treatment, Prevention 

Your deltoid is a large, triangle-shaped muscle that supports the movement and stability of the shoulder joint. This muscle covers the upper arm and forms the rounded contour of the shoulder. The deltoid is responsible for arm movements like lifting, rotating, and swinging.

A problem with the deltoid muscle can affect the range of motion and function of the arm, making everyday activities like getting dressed, carrying groceries, and reaching overhead difficult. Deltoid pain most commonly occurs due to an injury to the muscle or surrounding structures, including the nerves, bones, and tendons.

If deltoid pain is disrupting your daily life, seeking medical attention can be the first step toward a solution. By understanding the cause of your deltoid pain and finding the most effective treatment, you can restore the function of your arm and ensure a swift recovery.

The deltoid muscle has three distinct parts: the anterior (front), lateral (side), and posterior (rear) deltoid. Each part contributes to different arm movements: 

  • Anterior (front) deltoid: Lifts the arm forward
  • Lateral (middle) deltoid: Moves the arm outwards to the side and away from the body
  • Posterior (back) deltoid: Extends the arm backward

Injury to any of these three parts can cause deltoid pain. Pain can also develop from an injury or problem with the nearby structures, including tendons, nerves, joints, or blood vessels. 

Deltoid pain can make lifting or moving your arm difficult, and pressing on a particular spot within the muscle may cause a sharp increase in pain. Depending on the affected area and the underlying cause, deltoid pain may feel like: 

  • Aching
  • Soreness 
  • Sharpness or stabbing
  • Burning
  • Gnawing
  • Tingling 
  • Tenderness

Deltoid pain typically develops due to injury to the muscle or nearby structures. This may include a muscle strain, nerve injury, or problems your rotator cuff, among others.

Muscle Strain 

A deltoid muscle strain occurs when the muscle fibers become overstretched or torn. Muscle strains can happen suddenly due to forceful movements like lifting heavy objects with improper form or falling on an outstretched arm. They can also develop gradually from repetitive movements and overuse, such as playing sports or performing exercises that overstress the deltoid muscle.

Deltoid strains are most common in athletes and people who engage in repetitive activities involving the deltoid, such as heavy lifting or frequently reaching overhead. Symptoms of a deltoid muscle strain may include: 

  • Dull, aching soreness that worsens with certain movements or activities
  • Muscle pain or stiffness
  • Spasms or cramping

Rotator Cuff Injuries 

The rotator cuff is a group of tendons and muscles that cover the top of the humerus (a bone in your upper arm) and attach to the shoulder. A rotator cuff tear, which occurs when one of the rotator cuff tendons becomes detached from the arm bone, is a common cause of deltoid muscle pain. 

A rotator cuff tear can limit your shoulder’s range of motion, making the deltoid muscle work harder to keep the shoulder moving and compensate for the loss of function in the rotator cuff. This can lead to deltoid pain, stiffness, and soreness. Rotator cuff injuries typically develop from overuse or natural wear and tear due to aging. Symptoms of this type of injury include: 

  • Pain when resting or lying on the affected shoulder
  • Soreness during certain activities, such as lifting or lowering your arm 
  • Arm pain or weakness 
  • Crepitus, or the crackling or clicking sensations when moving your shoulder 

Axillary Nerve Injury 

The axillary nerve supplies sensation and motor function to the deltoid muscle. Damage to the axillary nerve can occur from injuries like shoulder dislocation, humerus fractures, or surgery. This type of injury can also develop from improper use of crutches or systemic (bodywide) health conditions that cause nerve inflammation.

Depending on the severity of the nerve injury, symptoms may include:

  • Numbness or tingling in the deltoid muscle
  • Sharp, shooting pains in the shoulder 
  • Limited range of motion in the affected arm
  • Muscle weakness, especially during certain movements like lifting your arm

Deltoid Rupture 

A deltoid rupture is a rare but serious injury where the deltoid muscle tears fully or partially away from its attachment to the shoulder, collarbone, or shoulder blade. Symptoms of a deltoid rupture include: 

  • A rip or popping sound followed by severe, sharp shoulder pain
  • Swelling, warmth, and redness in the shoulder
  • Arm weakness or the inability to raise and move the arm
  • Visible dip or deformity in the affected shoulder  

Shoulder Impingement Syndrome 

Shoulder impingement syndrome occurs when a tendon inside the shoulder rubs against nearby bone and soft tissues, causing pain. The pain associated with shoulder impingement is usually in the deltoid muscle’s lateral (middle) and anterior (front) portions. 

Repetitive overhead motions, such as swimming, baseball, tennis, painting, or lifting, can contribute to shoulder impingement syndrome. Symptoms of this condition include: 

  • Pain that radiates from the front of the deltoid down the side of the arm 
  • Sudden, worsening pain with lifting and overhead reaching movements 
  • Aching pain at night
  • Arm weakness 
  • Limited range of motion in the affected arm 
  • Difficulty reaching overhead or zipping or buttoning clothing 

Some deltoid pain may resolve with rest and self-care measures, such as ice therapy. Still, it’s important to see a healthcare provider if your pain: 

  • Feels severe or persists for more than a week or two
  • Interferes with daily activities or causes sleep deprivation
  • Is accompanied by weakness, numbness, or tingling in the arm
  • Occurs alongside swelling, bruising, or redness in the shoulder area
  • Follows a recent injury, fall, or surgery

Seek prompt medical attention for severe or sudden deltoid pain that occurs after an accident or fall or if you have a fever or a visible deformity in your shoulder. 

If you decide to see a healthcare provider for your pain, it can help to know what to expect at your appointment. Diagnosing the cause of deltoid pain involves a medical history review, physical examination, and imaging tests. Your healthcare provider will begin by reviewing your medical history and asking about your symptoms, including: 

  • Have you had a recent or past shoulder injury?
  • What does your pain feel like?
  • When did the pain start?
  • Are there any activities or movements that worsen or relieve the pain?
  • Do you live with any underlying conditions that can affect the function of your joints, muscles, or bones (e.g., arthritis)?

Once they learn more about your symptoms, your healthcare provider will perform a physical exam to check your deltoid and shoulder for signs of injury—such as swelling, tenderness, or deformity. They may ask you to move your arm in certain ways to test your shoulder’s range of motion and strength. 

Depending on what they observe during the physical exam, your healthcare provider may order diagnostic tests to provide an accurate diagnosis. These tests may include:

  • X-rays: Takes images of your shoulder bones to check for injuries like joint dislocation or fractures
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan: Combines multiple X-ray pictures with computer technology to create detailed images of the deltoid muscle and surrounding bones and soft tissues to diagnose injuries
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan: Creates detailed images of the deltoid muscle and surrounding structures to identify and diagnose injuries or nerve compression
  • Electromyography (EMG): Measures the electrical activity of the axillary nerve and deltoid muscle while at rest and during movement to check for injury to the muscle or nerve 

Fortunately, several treatments can help relieve deltoid pain. Treatments for deltoid pain depend on the cause of your symptoms and the severity of your condition. Generally, your provider may recommend home remedies, medical interventions, or a combination of both.

Home Remedies

Self-care strategies can help relieve deltoid pain. In most cases, home remedies may be enough to reduce pain while you wait for your injury to heal. These include: 

  • Rest: Refrain from activities that cause pain in your shoulder to allow the muscle to heal and prevent further damage
  • Ice and heat therapy: Apply an ice pack to the deltoid muscle for 15 minutes at a time and use a heating pad after a few days of ice therapy to increase blood flow to the deltoid muscle
  • Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers: Take medications like Aleve (naproxen) or Advil (ibuprofen) to help reduce pain and inflammation or try Salonpas (capsaicin) patches that you can apply to your shoulder directly to relieve muscle pain
  • Gentle stretches: Try gentle stretches to help improve shoulder flexibility and range of motion
  • Good posture: Maintain proper posture to reduce strain on the deltoid muscle and surrounding ligaments and tendons

Medical Treatments

Medical treatments can help provide relief from deltoid pain for more serious injuries or severe pain when home remedies are ineffective. Your provider may recommend one or more of the following treatments:

  • Prescription medication: Stronger pain relievers or anti-inflammatory medications can help relieve more severe deltoid pain
  • Physical therapy (PT): A physical therapist can help you perform exercises to improve strength, flexibility, and stability in your deltoid muscle and shoulder to prevent further injury
  • Corticosteroid injections: Injecting corticosteroids directly into the deltoid muscle or surrounding area can reduce inflammation and relieve pain
  • Surgery: Some injuries, such as a deltoid rupture, rotator cuff injury, or shoulder impingement, may require surgery to repair the damaged deltoid muscle or address the cause of deltoid pain 

In most cases, deltoid pain develops due to injury to the muscle or a nearby structure, such as ligaments, bones, or nerves in the shoulder. Deltoid pain often responds well to home remedies, including rest, ice therapy, and gentle stretches.

If your pain is severe or persistent, however, your healthcare provider may recommend medical treatments like medications, physical therapy, or surgery to support your recovery.  

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