Shoulder Pain

Shoulder pain is most often caused by overuse, injury, degenerative changes, inflammation or infection.

Shoulder pain is most often caused by overuse, injury, degenerative changes, inflammation or infection.

The shoulder is made up of three joints. The joints are known as the acromioclavicular, sternoclavicular and glenohumeral joints. The glenohumeral joint is the main joint and is what most people think of as the shoulder joint. It is made up of:

  • Bones
  • Muscles
  • Tendons
  • Ligaments
  • Cartilage

The glenohumeral joint is a ball-and-socket joint.

  • The ball of the glenohumeral joint is the head of the top arm bone, or the humerus. The socket is the part of the shoulder blade (scapula) that is known as the glenoid.
  • The humerus is held in place by four muscles and tendons. This group of muscles and tendons is known as the rotator cuff.
  • On the outside edge of the socket there is a rim of cartilage called the labrum. The labrum helps make the socket deeper and keep the humerus in place.

The structure and functions of the shoulder joints make it prone to injury, degeneration and pain.

Shoulder pain is a very common complaint. It may be caused by problems with the glenohumeral or acromioclavicular joints. These problems are most often caused by:

  • Overuse
  • Injury
  • Degenerative changes
  • Inflammation
  • Infection
  • Nearby tumor

Shoulder pain can be caused by an injury, such as a rotator cuff tear or tear in the labrum. It can also be caused by a more chronic (long-term) condition. These conditions include:

  • A frozen shoulder (a painful shoulder that has very limited movement)
  • Degenerative joint disease
  • Shoulder impingement (when bones in the shoulder put pressure on the surrounding tendons or bursa)

Risk factors for shoulder pain and/or injury include age (over 40 years of age) and participation in activities that require repetitive movements of the arm above the shoulder.

  • Activities that involve repeatedly moving the arm overhead in the same motion can cause the tendons in the shoulder to become irritated and inflamed. These activities pitching baseballs, swimming or lifting weights.
  • Over time this inflammation can lead to tears in the tendons, especially those in the rotator cuff.
  • Shoulder pain in children active in sports is not uncommon.

Shoulder symptoms frequently improve or resolve over time. Conservative treatments can be done at home and are often effective in relieving shoulder pain. Conservative treatments include:

  • Resting the affected arm and shoulder for a day or two.
  • Applying ice to the shoulder to reduce inflammation and pain. (Do not use ice longer than 15 minutes at a time. Also, do not apply ice directly to your skin.)
  • Physical therapy may be recommended to help strengthen your shoulder and prevent future injury. This will include exercises you can do at home.

Your healthcare provider may recommend over-the-counter pain medications. These can include:

  • Nonsteroidal/anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and naproxen
  • Mild pain relievers that do not have anti-inflammatory effects, such as acetaminophen

Sometimes, these medications can cause side effects and interfere with other medications you are taking. Ask your healthcare provider which one is right for you.

If your symptoms persist, your healthcare provider may recommend:

  • Imaging studies (x-rays or MRI)
  • A steroid injection to reduce the inflammation
  • Surgery to repair or correct problems in the shoulder joint (occasionally)

Contact your healthcare provider if you have shoulder pain or injury that is severe or is not responding to basic first aid at home. Be prepared to discuss your symptoms and how long you have had them.

  • Bring a copy of your medical history (past illnesses, surgeries, and hospitalizations).
  • Make a list of your medications (including over-the-counter).
  • Write down any questions, symptoms or concerns you want to talk about.
  • If your healthcare provider prescribes a medication for you, ask for a generic version. If your doctor thinks that a generic version is not right for you, ask for a medication on the lowest available tier of your Prescription Drug List (PDL).

Here are some questions to ask your healthcare provider.

  • What are some of the complications of shoulder pain? Am I at high risk for complications?
  • What tests are you recommending? What is the reason for those tests? Will the test results change my treatment plan?
  • What treatment, if any, are you recommending? What options are available?
  • If medication is recommended, how long will I need to take it? What are the possible side effects?
  • How long will it take my symptoms to improve?
  • What are my follow-up plans and what symptoms should I report before my next appointment?


Also known as:

Shoulder Strain
Shoulder Pain
Shoulder Injury
Rotator Cuff Injury
Painful Shoulder
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