Shoulder Pain

Table of contents



Pain in the shoulder is a common problem that can affect anyone at any age. The shoulder is made up of several joints combining bones, tendons and muscles that allow a wide range of motion in many different directions.

Your shoulder is the most mobile joint in your body and therefore it is more prone to injury. Shoulder pain relates to any pain around the entire shoulder joint and shoulder injuries are extremely restrictive due to the way we use our shoulders for many day-to-day activities.

Sleeping can also be extremely restricted by shoulder pain and can lead to other conditions such as insomnia or sleep deprivation or even anxiety and depression if the pain becomes chronic.


What causes shoulder pain?

When your shoulder is hurt, it affects your ability to move freely and can cause a great deal of pain and discomfort.

Shoulder pain is often the cause of overuse, or a specific incident that has led to an injury in the shoulder joint, however, longer term pain in the shoulder can also develop.

Certain diseases can bring about pain that travels to the shoulder. These include diseases of the cervical spine (neck), as well as liver, heart, or gallbladder disease.

Most shoulder pain is caused by either:
• Inflammation of the tendon (bursitis or tendinitis) of a tendon tear
• Rotator cuff (group of muscles and tendons that surround the joint) tendinitis or tear
• Arthritis
• Fracture of the bones
• Dislocation or instability of the shoulder joint

You are more likely to have problems with your shoulder as you grow older as years of use, as well as a degeneration of the soft tissues around the shoulder joint limit your movement.


What are the symptoms of shoulder pain?

There are many potential causes of shoulder pain. Depending on the cause of your shoulder pain, you may experience any of the following symptoms:

• Pain in the shoulder joint, or around the upper arm
• Reduced movement and pain when moving your shoulder
• Weakness of the shoulder and upper arm
• Pins and needles or a burning sensation which could stem from the nerves that lead into the shoulder rather than the shoulder itself
• Lack of movement, particular after a shoulder dislocation


Types of shoulder pain

Identifying the underlying causes of shoulder pain can be difficult. There are, however, typically four different types of shoulder pain to be aware of:

Aching shoulder pain

Usually caused by injuries such as rotator cuff tears, tendonitis, frozen shoulder, shoulder arthritis or polymyalgia rheumatica.

Sharp shoulder pain

Usually caused by injuries such as shoulder impingement syndrome or Acromioclavicular (AC) joint arthritis.

Shooting shoulder pain

Usually caused by injuries such as a pinched nerve, a brachial plexus injury or brachial plexus neuritis.

Warm or burning shoulder pain

Usually caused by injuries such as shoulder bursitis, rheumatoid arthritis or an infection.


How can shoulder pain be treated?

Most shoulder pain will settle over time and often a precise cause for the pain does not need to be understood. Homebased care such as applying ice therapy or heat therapy for about 15 minutes or using over-the-counter pain relief can help ease the pain. While resting your shoulder may assist with recovery, it is important to avoid resting for long periods as this may make the pain worse over time. Other things that can help include gentle stretching and using a pillow under the arm of your sore shoulder when lying down to sleep.

If your shoulder pain does not improve or you are concerned about it, seek assistance from a healthcare professional. They may order some tests to help identify the cause of the pain including x-rays, MRI or CT scans, ultrasound or an arthroscopy procedure.

Common treatments for shoulder pain include physiotherapy, and medications and in rare cases, surgery may be an option if other treatments have not worked.

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