Causes of Deltoid Pain

Written by Nikita Mistry
Physiotherapist, Western Sydney University
Medically reviewed by Dr Gina Arena
Research Fellow, University of Western Australia
Reviewed on May 31, 2022

Man holding his left shoulder with deltoid pain

What is Deltoid Pain?

Deltoid pain is caused by injury to the deltoid muscle or surrounding area. In most cases, the deltoid pain is caused by muscle overuse, from inadequate recovery after an activity or lack of a warm-up before exercise.

The deltoid muscle is a powerful muscle that is situated at the top of the upper arm and shoulder. The main action of the deltoid muscle is to elevate (lift) the arm. The deltoid has three main sections: anterior (front), lateral (side), and posterior (back).

Whenever the arm is lifted, the deltoid is usually helping the movement. Targeted treatment can help reduce any symptoms and alleviate the pain, depending on the cause of the pain.

Learn more about deltoid pain and how to prevent it.

What are the symptoms of deltoid pain?

Common symptoms of deltoid pain may include:

  • A dull ache or sharp pain in the deltoid muscle

  • Muscle cramps

  • Stiffness

  • Reduced range of motion

  • Difficulty with everyday activities, such as reaching

  • Right shoulder and arm pain

Symptoms may vary depending on the cause and severity of the injury.

What causes deltoid pain?

Deltoid pain is usually caused by overuse or muscle strain, also known as a ‘pulled muscle’. Using the muscles in the shoulder without warming up or properly recovering can overload and fatigue the muscle, and lead to a muscle strain or tear.

Diagnosing a deltoid injury

There are three classifications of a muscle injury:[1]

Grade one deltoid injury

A grade one injury is a mild strain with minimal disruption to the muscle fibres. There will likely be some tightness and stiffness.

Grade two deltoid injury

A grade two injury is a partial tear of the muscle. This can cause significant pain, difficulty lifting or using the arm, and possibly swelling.

Grade three deltoid injury

A grade three injury is a severe or complete muscle tear or rupture. This can lead to a complete loss of function and significant pain and swelling.

Strenuous activity or high intensity sport can increase the risk of developing deltoid pain. For example, people involved in:

  • Weightlifting

  • Swimming

  • Manual labour

  • Throwing sports, such as baseball.

Deltoid pain can also develop slowly over time from repetitive activities, such as sitting at a desk with poor posture or repetitive tasks with an incorrect chair or desk height.

Deltoid pain can also be caused by trauma, fractures, or infection. It is important to discuss any concerns or unexplained symptoms with a doctor before any treatment commences.

How is deltoid pain treated?

The treatment for deltoid pain depends on the cause and severity of the pain.[2] However, a common first strategy is to use the RICE principle: Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. Resting can help the healing process by removing any aggravating factors that may have contributed to the pain. When used appropriately, applying an ice pack to the area may also help reduce swelling and provide short-term pain relief.

Over-the-counter medication may also help reduce any symptoms in the short-term. A doctor may also recommend prescription medication to reduce inflammation and help return to everyday activities. In rare cases, a doctor may suggest a corticosteroid injection. If the injury is severe, a doctor may recommend seeing an orthopaedic specialist or sports doctor.


A gentle exercise program that includes stretching or strengthening exercises can be beneficial for a muscle injury. A physiotherapist can assess the symptoms and prescribe the appropriate exercises based on the severity and cause of the condition. This can help alleviate any symptoms and restore the range of motion in the shoulder and arm to ease back into exercise.


In the case of a more severe muscle injury, a doctor may recommend a review with an orthopaedic surgeon to discuss surgical options. Recovery from surgery may be prolonged, and a brace or sling may be required for a period of time post-surgery.


A minor injury may recover within a few days or weeks. A partial or complete tear or rupture may require a more extensive recovery timeframe. In some cases, surgery may need to be considered.

If there are any concerns, it is important to consult a health practitioner. They can advise whether to ease back into movement after a few days, or they may recommend a more prolonged break from any aggravating activities or exercise.

When to seek help

If the pain is from a sporting accident or trauma, if the pain is severe or persistent, or if there are severe symptoms such as if the arm cannot be moved properly, it is important to consult a doctor. This could be a sign of a more serious deltoid injury.

A doctor will assess the arm with a physical examination and ask a series of questions to help determine the cause of the symptoms. In some cases, further testing may be required, such as an ultrasound or MRI, to help diagnose the problem.

If there is any dizziness, nausea or vomiting, neck pain, headaches, or other unexplained symptoms, a doctor should be consulted immediately. This could indicate a more serious underlying medical issue which needs to be addressed immediately.

Prevention of a deltoid injury

Whilst it may not be possible to eliminate the risk of developing an injury, there are strategies that can reduce the likelihood of getting an injury by making sure the muscle is strong and is used appropriately.

These strategies may include:

  • Completing a proper warm-up and cool-down for exercise

  • Exercising regularly

  • Introducing any new exercises or activities gradually

  • Recovering properly after exercise

  • Completing specific exercises for the deltoid muscle

  • Ensuring any work desk, chair, or computer are set up appropriately

  • Monitoring posture throughout the day.

Key messages

Deltoid pain can occur suddenly, or may develop gradually over time. It may cause pain, stiffness, and reduced range of motion for a period of time. The symptoms should settle within a few weeks. However, the best strategy is to prevent the injury from occurring in the first place by using simple strategies to protect the muscle, such as doing a warm-up before exercise and introducing any new activities slowly.

In the case that the injury is severe or there are any unexplained symptoms, a doctor should be consulted.

Written by Nikita Mistry
Physiotherapist, Western Sydney University
Published on May 31, 2022
Medically reviewed by Dr Gina Arena
Research Fellow, University of Western Australia
Reviewed on May 31, 2022
Medical reviewers
Last medically reviewed on May 31, 2022 has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references. You can learn more about how we ensure our content is accurate and current by reading our editorial policy.
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