Common Causes of Shoulder Pain

Many people in their lifetime will likely experience pain in their shoulder joint. There are various causes of shoulder pain including tendon inflammation, arthritis, instability, or fracture. In many situations, the pain will resolve with time and rest. There are situations when you should consider seeing a physician for your shoulder pain.


Tendon inflammation can occur from excessive use of the shoulder such as overhead throwing or from wear and tear due to age. When the tissues in the joint become inflamed, many daily activities, such as getting dressed or combing your hair, may become painful and difficult to perform.


Tears of the shoulder tendons may result from an injury or from degeneration in the tendons from advancing age or from overuse. Most tears will involve the rotator cuff, but the biceps tendon can also be involved in some cases. It is often difficult to differentiate a partial tear from a full tear based on medical history and physical exam alone.

Instability of the shoulder may occur if the stabilizing structures around the shoulder, such as the ligaments and labrum, become loose or torn. Shoulder dislocations can lead to persistent pain and instability. Repeated episodes of dislocations can lead to an increased risk of developing arthritis in the shoulder.

Arthritis is another common condition that causes shoulder pain, stiffness, and loss of function. Osteoarthritis, also known as β€œwear and tear” arthritis, usually slowly develops over time. X-rays are helpful to determine if a patient has arthritis. Most treatments will focus on decreasing inflammation and pain, as well as maintaining flexibility.


A fracture of the shoulder area usually involves the clavicle (collarbone) or the humerus (upper arm bone). Most fractures occur because of a fall from a standing height or from automobile accidents. Patients with a fracture often experience severe pain, swelling, and loss of function of the shoulder.


Often, minor shoulder pain can be treated with rest, gentle exercises, activity changes, and medications. Ice or heat and topical creams can also provide some relief.


When should you see an orthopedic surgeon for your shoulder pain? If the pain is persistent and you have tried simple measures mentioned above, you may have a more serious condition. If you start developing night pain and/or loss of function, such as stiffness or weakness, you should consult an orthopedic surgeon. Finally, if an injury causes intense pain, seek medical care as soon as possible.

Orthopedic surgeons are trained to conduct a thorough evaluation to determine the cause of your pain and provide you with treatment options. The evaluation consists of a thorough medical history, comprehensive exam, and x-rays to determine the cause of your shoulder pain.

Treatment options are usually extremely effective and consist of activity modification, medications, physical therapy, injections, and/or surgery. Surgery is usually reserved for conditions that do not benefit from exercise or medications, such as complete rotator cuff tears.