What Is It, Location, Function, and More

Author:Anna Hernández, MD

Editors:Alyssa Haag,Ian Mannarino, MD,Kelsey LaFayette, DNP, ARNP, FNP-C

Illustrator:Jillian Dunbar

Copyeditor:David G. Walker

What is the deltoid muscle?

The deltoid muscle is a large, triangular-shaped muscle that lies superficially to other muscles of  the shoulder and is responsible for forming the shoulder’s rounded contour. The shoulder joint is formed by the articulation of the head of the humerus with the shallow glenoid cavity of the scapula, giving rise to the alternate name for the shoulder joint, which is the glenohumeral joint. The deltoid muscle is one of the main abductors of the shoulder, meaning it helps lift the arm when reaching for objects or brushing the hair. It is also active when carrying heavy weights, like a suitcase or grocery bags, in order to prevent dislocation of the glenohumeral joint.  

Anterior, lateral, and posterior deltoid.

Where is the deltoid located?

The deltoid is a superficial muscle located overlying the glenohumeral joint and is one of the six intrinsic muscles of the shoulder. The other five intrinsic muscles of the shoulder include the teres major and the four rotator cuff muscles (i.e. supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis muscles), which are powerful rotators of the glenohumeral joint. The deltoid muscle receives its blood supply from various branches of the axillary artery, including the thoracoacromial artery, the circumflex humeral arteries, and the deep brachial artery. It is innervated by the axillary nerve, which runs around the neck of the humerus once exiting the axilla.  

Anatomically, the deltoid muscle can be divided into three parts: the anterior, or clavicular; lateral, or acromial; and posterior, or spinal. Proximally, each of these parts attach to a different region of the shoulder, known as the “origin” of the muscle. The anterior part attaches to the lateral third of the clavicle, the lateral part attaches to the acromion process, and the posterior part attaches to the spine of the scapula. The deltoid muscle fibers run laterally and inferiorly towards the humerus and converge into a narrow base that attaches to the deltoid tuberosity of the humerus. This is the “insertion” of the deltoid muscle. 

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What does the deltoid muscle do?

The deltoid has a significant role in shoulder abduction as well as smaller roles in flexion and extension movements of the arm. When the three parts of the deltoid contract simultaneously, it results in abduction of the shoulder when the arm is already held at 15 degrees of abduction. The deltoid cannot initiate abduction, so the initial 15 degrees of abduction are produced by the supraspinatus muscle

In addition, each part of the deltoid muscle can contract independently, producing other arm movements. When the anterior deltoid contracts alone, it produces extension and lateral rotation of the arm. When the lateral part of the deltoid contracts independently, it causes the arm to abduct. And finally, contraction of the posterior deltoid causes the arm to flex and medially rotate. The anterior and posterior deltoid muscle fibers are used to swing the arms when walking. 

Finally, the deltoid plays an important role in stabilizing the glenohumeral joint, especially when carrying weights with the arm completely adducted down at the side (e.g. when carrying grocery bags) where it prevents inferior displacement of the glenohumeral joint. 

Can you injure your deltoid muscle?

The deltoid muscle can become injured by repeated overhead activities; sports injuries (e.g. water polo, swimming, baseball); and motor vehicle crashes, leading to a deltoid muscle tear or strain. Deltoid muscle tears are uncommon and typically related to massive rotator cuff tears or traumatic shoulder dislocations

In addition, injury to the axillary nerve, including those caused by humeral fractures, dislocation of the shoulder, or mechanical stress (e.g. incorrect use of crutches) may affect the functioning of the nerve and, consequently, the deltoid muscle. Symptoms of axillary nerve palsy (i.e. paralysis) or injury can lead to atrophy of the deltoid muscle, causing loss of muscle tone and a flat appearing shoulder. There may also be muscle weakness and loss of sensation to the skin overlying the deltoid muscle. 

Finally, injury to the deltoid muscle may occur as a result of repeated intramuscular injections of vaccines, antibiotics, and other medications as well as during an anterior surgical approach to the shoulder joint.

Treatment of deltoid injuries depends on the degree and type of injury. In general, deltoid strains and partial tears can be treated with rest, ice, and medications to help alleviate the pain (e.g. acetaminophen or paracetamol, ibuprofen, etc.). Once movement becomes pain free, individuals may benefit from physical therapy and gentle stretching to expedite healing and prevent future strains. Minor strains may take one to two weeks to recover, whereas deltoid tears may take a few months to heal. 

What are the most important facts to know about the deltoid muscle?

The deltoid is one of the intrinsic muscles of the shoulder. Its main function is to produce shoulder abduction and contributes to the stabilization of the glenohumeral joint and swinging of the arms when walking. The deltoid muscle is innervated by the axillary nerve. It may become injured by repeated overhead activities, traumatic injuries, repeated intramuscular injections, surgery, or lesions of the axillary nerve. 

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Related links

Anatomy of the glenohumeral joint
Fascia, vessels, and nerves of the upper limb
Rotator cuff tear

Resources for research and reference

Drake, R. L. (2019). Gray’s anatomy for students (4th ed.). Elsevier.

Moore, K. L., Dalley, A. F., & Agur, A. M. R. (2014). Clinically oriented anatomy (7th ed.). Wolters Kluwer/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins Health.

Moser, T., Lecours, J., Michaud, J., Bureau, N. J., Guillin, R., & Cardinal, É. (2013). The deltoid, a forgotten muscle of the shoulder. Skeletal Radiology, 42(10): 1361–1375. DOI: 10.1007/s00256-013-1667-7