Shoulder Pain: Types, Diagnosis and Treatments

Your shoulder is one of the most flexible joints in your body. The shoulder joint is made up of three bones, 17 muscles, and several tendons and ligaments. You're using your shoulders nearly nonstop throughout the day for everything from reaching for a plate from a high cabinet to carrying groceries to typing a text message.

When you have shoulder pain, your ability to complete many tasks is compromised. Identifying the symptoms of shoulder pain can help you get relief so that you can return to living pain-free. 

Continue reading to learn more about the symptoms and causes of shoulder pain and what treatments your healthcare provider may suggest.

Woman rubbing her shoulder

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In rare cases, sudden left shoulder pain can be a sign of a heart attack. If you experience pain or pressure in your left shoulder that runs into your chest, neck, jaw or arm, call 911. 

Symptoms of Shoulder Pain

As you may know, the main symptom of shoulder pain is discomfort. The type of pain varies depending on what’s causing it. You might experience a dull ache that comes on gradually over time or a sharp or burning pain.

 In addition to pain, you might notice these symptoms:

  • Changes in your range of movement or increased pain when you move the shoulder
  • Redness, heat, or swelling around the shoulder
  • A popping, clicking, or grinding noise when you move your shoulder
  • Shoulder weakness  
  • Pain in your arm, neck, or back

Causes of Shoulder Pain

There are four main categories of shoulder pain, as follows:

  • Tendon inflammation and tearing: The shoulder has many muscles and tendons, including the rotator cuff. When these areas become inflamed you can develop bursitis or tendonitis. You might also experience a rotator cuff tear. These types of injuries are characterized by pain that gets worse after movement or shoulder use. 
  • Shoulder instability: Shoulder instability, also known as a shoulder dislocation or subluxation, happens when the arm bone comes fully or partially out of the shoulder socket. It can happen as the shoulder weakens over time, or suddenly due to an injury. This can cause dull or severe pain. 
  • Arthritis: Osteoarthritis, which is inflammation from wear and tear, is common in the shoulder joint. If you have arthritis, your pain will start slowly and build over time. You’ll also likely experience joint stiffness and a reduced range of motion. 
  • Fracture: If you fracture (break) a bone in the shoulder, you’ll experience sudden and severe pain accompanied by redness and swelling. Older individuals can fracture their shoulders by falling, while younger people generally have shoulder fractures from sports or car accidents. 

Tests to Diagnose the Cause of Shoulder Pain

Treatment will depend on the cause of your shoulder pain, so it’s important to identify what’s causing your discomfort. In most cases, you should visit your healthcare provider to discuss the cause of your shoulder pain. They might use the following tests to help make a diagnosis:

  • X-ray: If your healthcare provider suspects a fracture or arthritis, they may use an X-ray.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): MRI scans can be used to show damage to ligaments and other soft tissue. 
  • Computed tomography (CT): CT scans provide a detailed look at the joint that can be helpful in diagnosing most shoulder pain issues. 
  • Electromyography (EMG): Electrical studies, including EMGs, can detect nerve damage.
  • Arthroscopy: If your healthcare provider can’t make a diagnosis based on the other tests, they may opt for exploratory surgery, known as an arthroscopy. 

How to Treat Shoulder Pain

Once you know what’s causing your shoulder pain, you can work with your healthcare provider to create a treatment plan. The shoulder is a complex joint, so it’s critical to work with a professional to treat your pain and prevent further injuries. 

Your treatment plan will depend on the cause of your shoulder pain, but it may include:

  • Rest: Injuries like tendonitis and a fracture require rest while they heal. 
  • Heat or ice: Using heat or ice can promote healing, plus it feels good. Talk to your healthcare provider about which is right for your injury. 
  • Physical therapy: Physical therapy can teach you exercises and stretches that will help you regain strength and mobility in your shoulder, while also allowing it time to heal. A physical therapist can help you learn how to manage chronic conditions like arthritis that will also relieve pain.
  • Medication: A steroid injection or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like Advil or Motrin taken orally or applied as a cream can reduce swelling and pain. This is a temporary way to control pain.
  • Surgery: If your pain persists despite other treatment, your healthcare provider might recommend surgery to repair the joint. 

When to See a Healthcare Provider

It’s possible to just sleep wrong and wake up with shoulder pain. But if you have consistent or frequent shoulder pain, it’s best to consult with your healthcare provider. Always tell them if you have:

  • Shoulder pain that lasts for more than two weeks
  • Swelling
  • A fever
  • Trouble moving your shoulder
  • Red or blue-tinged skin around the shoulder
  • Severe pain


Shoulder pain can be caused by normal wear and tear of the shoulder, or by a sudden injury. It can be dull and creep up on you over time, or happen suddenly because of a fall or an accident. If you have severe shoulder pain or milder pain that lasts for more than two weeks, you should talk to a healthcare provider about making a treatment plan for shoulder pain. 

 A Word From Verywell

Shoulder pain might seem minor, but it can have a major impact on your life. If pain begins interfering with your daily activities or just won’t go away, it’s time to talk with a healthcare provider. There are treatments available for shoulder pain.


Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes shoulder pain?

    Shoulder pain is commonly caused by tendonitis, bursitis, arthritis, shoulder instability or a fracture. These can develop from normal everyday activities, or due to an accident or injury. 

  • When should I worry about shoulder pain?

    If your pain lasts for two weeks or longer, you should see a healthcare provider. Call them if you have severe pain, swelling, or changes to your ability to move your shoulder. 

  • How can I get rid of shoulder pain?

    Icing your shoulder for 15 minutes at a time and taking over-the-counter painkillers can help. In the long term, work with your healthcare provider to create a treatment plan that addresses the root causes of shoulder pain.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Harvard Health Publishing.Ouch! Shoulder pain and how to treat it.

  2. PennMedicine.Shoulder pain.

  3. Dignity Health. Shoulder pain.

  4. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Shoulder pain and common shoulder problems.

  5. MedlinePlus.Shoulder pain.

By Kelly Burch
Kelly Burch is has written about health topics for more than a decade. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and more.