Causes of Shoulder Pain and Treatment Options

Everything you need to know about shoulder pain

It isn't always easy to identify the difference between frozen shoulder, shoulder blade pain, and symptoms of a rotator cuff tear. This is why it helps to know a little about how your shoulder functions.

Then you'll know when it's time to get medical attention if you have shoulder pain. Only then can your treatment be tailored to the cause, your overall health, and your level of activity.

This article explains the likely causes of shoulder pain, which largely depends on where it's located. It also suggests when it's time to see a physician and the various tests they may undertake to make a diagnosis and develop a treatment plan for you.

Know Your Shoulder

Your shoulder joint has three bones:

  1. Humerus (upper arm)
  2. Scapular (shoulder blade)
  3. Clavicle (collarbone)

The top of your humerus is shaped like a ball, and it fits into a shallow socket in your scapula. Strong ligaments keep the ball centered in the socket, and your rotator cuff muscles (which also cover the upper arm bone) lift and rotate your arm.

The clavicle provides supports the scapular, allowing the arm to move freely. A problem with any part of this "architecture" can cause pain, weakness, or instability in the shoulder.

shoulder pain causes
Verywell / Alexandra Gordon

Causes

Shoulder pain is a very common problem. In fact, by some estimates, more than 2 million Americans (and especially adults) experience a rotator cuff problem every year.

Considering your shoulder joint's complex anatomy, there are many potential causes of shoulder pain—from muscle tears and tendonitis to osteoarthritis. The location of your shoulder pain can help your physician zero in on which part of the joint is affected.

Outside of the Shoulder

Several issues can cause pain on the outside of the shoulder, and the most common cause is a rotator cuff tear.

Rotator Cuff Problem

Four rotator cuff muscles move your shoulder, including the deltoid muscle. There are three main types of rotator cuff problems:

  1. Tendonitis: Inflammation of the tendons (which connect your shoulder muscles to your upper arm bone)
  2. Bursitis: Inflammation of the bursa (a fluid-filled space)
  3. Rotator cuff tear: The painful result of tendons of the rotator cuff pulling away from the arm bone

Rotator cuff problems cause pain, especially with activities like reaching or throwing. The deep, aching shoulder pain tends to worsen or flare up at night. It can easily wake you up from sleep or make it difficult to fall asleep.

Rotator cuff problems can be associated with a limited active range of motion. Since it's hard to voluntarily move your injured or inflamed muscle, your shoulder may feel stiff.

But if someone does the work for you by lifting your arm (passive movement), your shoulder will likely move normally.

Frozen Shoulder

Also called adhesive capsulitis, frozen shoulder is a common condition that leads to joint stiffness and pain, which can be constant. While many shoulder conditions, including rotator cuff tendinitis, can be associated with frozen shoulder, the cause is often unknown. With a frozen shoulder, there is a decrease in both active and passive range of motion.

Calcific Tendonitis

Calcific tendonitis occurs when calcium crystals are deposited within a tendon, most commonly within the rotator cuff tendons. This condition typically causes progressive shoulder pain that is worse at night and with overhead motions, like putting on a sweatshirt.

Some people develop a chronic case of this form of tendonitis. Many others find that the symptoms resolve on their own over three to six months.

Recap


Tendonitis, bursitis, and rotator cuff tears are the three most common causes of pain that strike outside of the shoulder. Rotator cuff tears are the most common of all.

Front of the Shoulder

Pain in the front of the shoulder is most commonly related to the biceps tendon—a tendon that attaches deep inside the shoulder. Conditions include biceps tendonitis, biceps tendon tears, and superior labrum anterior-posterior (SLAP) tears.

Bicep Tendonitis

Biceps tendon problems usually cause gradual pain at the front of the shoulder that can continue down over the biceps muscle. The pain often worsens after repetitive lifting, carrying heavy bags, or overhead activities. It can intensify at night. Problems with the biceps tendon may also cause a clicking sound when the shoulder is rotated in an arc.

Biceps Tendon Rupture

A biceps tendon rupture may occur if the biceps muscle breaks free near the joint. The symptoms of a biceps tendon rupture include a sudden "pop," along with an acute worsening of pain, bruising, swelling, and often a lump just above the antecubital fossa (in front of your elbow).

SLAP Tears

A superior labrum anterior-posterior tear is a specific type of glenoid labrum (cartilage in the shoulder joint) tear. One common cause is a fall on an outstretched hand.

It's also a common tear in athletes (like baseball pitchers) who throw overhead and workers involved in repetitive overhead activities. Symptoms may include deep shoulder pain and a popping sound with movement.

Shoulder Osteoarthritis

With shoulder osteoarthritis, you can have deep shoulder pain or pain at the front of your shoulder, along with stiffness. There is generally a decrease in both active and passive range of motion.

Shoulder arthritis can sometimes be preceded by an injury to the arm, neck, or shoulder that occurred years prior. When severe, it may be treated with joint replacement surgery.

Recap

The biceps tendon can trigger pain in the front of the shoulder. It manifests itself in bicep tendonitis, biceps tendon tears, SLAP tears, and shoulder osteoarthritis.

Top of the Shoulder

The most common cause of pain in the top of the shoulder is an abnormality of the acromioclavicular joint (AC) joint. Problems of the AC joint include AC arthritis, AC separation, and distal clavicle osteolysis.

AC Arthritis

Arthritis can cause smooth cartilage to wear away, cartilage roughness, and bone spurs, which may limit mobility. Exposed bone and uneven cartilage surfaces may cause crepitus (a grinding sensation), especially when you reach overhead or across your chest.

AC Separation

AC separation (also called a shoulder separation) can occur after a fall right onto your shoulder that injuries the ligaments surrounding your AC joint. Depending on the severity of your ligament injury, a bump may form above your shoulder due to the separation of your shoulder blade from your collarbone.

Distal Clavicle Osteolysis

Distal clavicle osteolysis causes sharp or aching pain at the end of the collarbone (clavicle). It most commonly affects weightlifters or others who repeatedly lift or carry heavy objects.

Recap

The AC joint (acromioclavicular joint) is the spot of such top-of-shoulder problems as AC arthritis, AC separation, and distal clavicle osteolysis.

All Over the Shoulder

The tendons, ligaments, and muscles in your shoulder keep it stable. If these tissues become loose or torn, shoulder instability or dislocation may occur.

Shoulder Instability

As the name suggests, instability causes loosening of the joint. It can be caused by a traumatic injury (dislocation) or from overuse. Shoulders that feel unstable may feel as though they will pop out of the joint.

Multidirectional instability can result from chronically loose ligaments. This condition usually affects young, athletic women, making them feel as if their shoulder is not staying tightly in position (subluxation of the shoulder). The sensation is often described as a "dead arm" with excessive shoulder range of motion.

Shoulder Dislocation

A dislocation is an injury that occurs when the top of the arm bone becomes disconnected from the scapula. If someone has dislocated their shoulder, then the normal ligaments that hold the shoulder in position may be damaged, and the shoulder has a tendency to pop out of the joint again.

Recap

Your body depends on tendons, ligaments, and muscles. When they falter in the shoulder, two conditions can occur: shoulder instability or shoulder dislocation.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

It's time to seek medical attention if you have new, worsening, or severe shoulder pain. Other symptoms ought to spark the same reaction:

  • An injury that causes joint deformity
  • Inability to carry objects or use your arm
  • Inability to raise your arm
  • Shoulder pain that occurs at night or while resting
  • Shoulder pain that persists beyond a few days
  • Signs of an infection, including fever, skin redness, and warmth
  • Swelling or significant bruising around your joint or arm
  • Abdominal pain or another symptom you can't explain, which may be a sign of referred pain (or a problem that begins somewhere else in the body)

Diagnosis

Since there are many potential causes of shoulder pain, your healthcare provider will do a careful review of your symptoms, physical examination, and sometimes imaging tests to make a proper diagnosis.

Physical Examination

After reviewing your symptoms and medical history, your healthcare provider will perform a thorough exam of your shoulder. They will press on different areas of your shoulder to evaluate it for tenderness or deformity. They will also test your arm strength and your shoulder range of motion.

Your healthcare provider may also examine other areas of your body, like your neck or abdomen, to rule out non-shoulder-related causes of your pain.

Imaging

You might need one or more of the following:

  • X-ray: A shoulder X-ray can visualize bone injuries or subtle problems, like bone spurs, that could suggest a diagnosis of osteoarthritis.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): This test provides detailed images of the tendons, ligaments, and muscles that surround the shoulder joint. For instance, an MRI can provide information about the location, size, and relative age of a rotator cuff tear.

Differential Diagnoses

While it seems logical that shoulder pain would stem from the shoulder, this is not always the case. Pain in the general shoulder area, often difficult to pinpoint, can sometimes be related to a herniated disc in the neck or gallbladder disease.

In rare cases, shoulder pain can be a symptom of a heart attack or bleeding from the liver or spleen.

If your healthcare provider has concerns about another cause that's outside your shoulder joint, they may focus on that diagnosis.

For example, an electrocardiogram (ECG) may be ordered for a suspected heart attack. An abdominal ultrasound may be ordered for suspected gallbladder disease.

Identifying the root cause of shoulder pain can be tricky. And it may take time, so try to be patient as your healthcare provider homes in on a diagnosis.

Treatment

The treatment of shoulder pain depends entirely on the cause of the problem. And while one treatment protocol may be useful for one issue, it may not be helpful, and can even be harmful, for another.

It's vital that you seek expert medical advice before embarking on a treatment program. Not all treatments listed here are appropriate for every condition. But some may be helpful in your situation:

Rest

The first treatment for many common types of shoulder pain is to rest the joint and allow the inflammation or irritation to subside. Use caution when resting the joint; prolonged rest can lead to joint stiffness.

Ice and Heat Application

Ice packs are most often used to reduce swelling and pain from an acute shoulder injury. They can also be used to treat shoulder overuse injuries (for example, rotator cuff tendinitis or bursitis).

In these cases, the ice is applied right after the overhead activity to minimize the onset of inflammation. Heat pads are also used to treat chronic shoulder conditions, but generally before the overhead activity is performed. Heat can relax the muscles, ease stiffness, and reduce pain.

Before applying ice or heat, talk with your healthcare provider or physical therapist. Developing a specific plan for the timing and duration of each treatment is important so that you heal properly.

Physical Activity

Physical therapy plays an important role in shoulder pain treatment. Your physical therapist may use different modalities to increase your strength, restore mobility, and help you return to your pre-injury level of activity. So as tempting as it may be, try not to compare and contrast your treatment plan with anyone else's.

Medications

The two most common medications used to ease shoulder pain and swelling are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) and steroid injections.

NSAIDs

Some NSAIDs are available over-the-counter (for example, ibuprofen), and others are prescribed, like Voltaren (diclofenac). These are commonly used to treat shoulder problems like arthritis, bursitis, and tendonitis.

This said, it's important to use them only for a short time and only under the guidance of your healthcare provider. NSAIDs present some risks, so notify your healthcare provider if you are pregnant or have any health problems like high blood pressure, asthma, or a history of kidney disease, liver disease, or stomach ulcers.

Steroid Injection

With a steroid injection, your healthcare provider will give you a shot of cortisone—a powerful steroid medication that reduces inflammation—into your shoulder. An injection can help reduce pain and help you engage in physical therapy sessions more easily.

Surgery

In some cases, and probably as a last resort, surgery may be needed if conservative measures are not working or if your shoulder injury is severe from the start. Shoulder surgery requires the services of an orthopedic surgeon.

Summary

Pinpointing the cause of shoulder pain can be a huge challenge because there are so many possibilities to consider. It helps to narrow down the region of the pain and where it feels worst: outside of the shoulder, at the front or top region, or all over. The process of elimination can be aided by an X-ray or MRI before a healthcare provider or physical therapist devises a treatment plan. It may include rest, hot and cold packs, medication, physical therapy, and maybe a steroid injection.

A Word From Verywell

Sorting out the "why" behind your shoulder pain can be challenging, so try to remain patient. The shoulder is a complex structure, and getting the right diagnosis is ultimately the key to recovery. Rest assured that the vast majority of people eventually find relief from their shoulder pain.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why do I feel shoulder pain at night?

    Some shoulder issues get worse at night because the area is more compressed than it is during the day. It's common for pain from tendonitis, bursitis, and rotator cuff tears to flare up at night.

  • Why does my shoulder pop?

    Shoulder popping can occur from a superior labrum anterior-posterior tear (SLAP tear). This is a tear of the glenoid labrum, the cartilage found in the shoulder joint.

  • What causes frozen shoulder?

    In many cases, frozen shoulder occurs without any related injury or known cause. However, risk factors include diabetes, thyroid problems, shoulder surgery, heart disease, or Parkinson's disease.

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