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Shoulder Pain

Shoulder anatomy

The shoulder is used for a wide and versatile range of motion. If any damage occurs to the shoulder, it can lead to the inability to move freely and can lead to a lot of discomfort and pain. The shoulder has three main bones and a ball-and-socket joint. The three bones of the shoulder are the humerus, the clavicle, and the scapula. Such bones are cushioned with the use of a layer of cartilage. The acromioclavicular and the glenohumeral joints also help the shoulder to allow us all the movements that we can do with it. It is considered to be the most mobile joint out of all the joints in the body. We can move the shoulder backward and forward, we can move the arm in a circular motion, and we can move up and away from the body.

The rotator cuff can help the shoulder and provide it with the range of motion that it has. It is made out of four tendons. Tendons are the tissues that connect the muscles to the bone. It can be painful and difficult to lift the arm over the head when the tendons and bones around the rotator cuff are swollen and damaged. There are different ways you can injure your shoulders, such as playing sports, doing repetitive movements, or manual labor. Certain types of conditions can cause lead to shoulder pain, such as diseases of the heart, the liver, gallbladder disease, or the cervical spine.

As you grow older, especially over the age of 60, the chances get higher of suffering from shoulder pain. This occurs due to the soft tissues surround the shoulder and degenerating with age. There are a lot of cases where you can treat shoulder pain at home. However, if this doesn’t work in addition to physical therapy and medications, surgery might be necessary.

What Is the Cause of Shoulder Pain?

There are a lot of factors and conditions that can lead to shoulder pain. One of the most common causes is considered to be rotator cuff tendinitis. It is a condition that is characterized by swollen tendons. Another cause of shoulder pain that is quite common is impingement syndrome. This condition is caused when the rotator cuff gets caught between the humeral head, which is the ball portion of the humerus, and the part of the scapula that covers this ball, or the acromion.

An injury to another area of the body, such as the neck or the biceps, also often leads to shoulder pain. In such cases, the pain is known as referred pain, as the pain is experienced in the shoulder, although this is not the area that is damaged.

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Some other possible causes of shoulder pain include frozen shoulder, dislocated shoulder, a torn rotator cuff, a pinched nerve in the shoulder or the neck, a broken shoulder or a broken arm bone, torn cartilage, swollen tendons or swollen bursa sacs, arthritis, bone spurs, a spinal cord injury, an injury due to repetitive use and overuse or a heart attack.

Some other possible causes of shoulder pain include frozen shoulder, dislocated shoulder, a torn rotator cuff, a pinched nerve in the shoulder or the neck, a broken shoulder or a broken arm bone, torn cartilage, swollen tendons or swollen bursa sacs, arthritis, bone spurs, a spinal cord injury, an injury due to repetitive use and overuse or a heart attack.

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How Is Shoulder Pain Diagnosed?

Your shoulder specialist will need to help you find out what causes your shoulder pain. A physical examination and a medical history can help. Your doctor will feel for swelling and tenderness and will also need to evaluate joint stability and the range of motion. Imaging tests might also be needed, such as an MRI or an X-ray. Your doctor might also need to ask you questions to determine the cause of the condition, such as whether both or only one shoulder is affected, whether the pain begins suddenly, whether it hurts even if you’re not moving, whether the pain is experienced in other areas of the body as well and so on.

You must speak to a doctor if you’re unable to move the shoulder, if your pain lasts and is bruised, if you experience heat and tenderness around the joint, if you suffer from fever and if you’re in pain despite trying a couple of weeks of home treatment. If you experience shoulder pain all of a sudden that isn’t related to an injury, you must call 911 as soon as possible. Such shoulder pain can be an indicator of a heart attack. Other signs of a heart attack can include dizziness, trouble breathing dizziness, excessive sweating, or pain in the jaw and neck. It is also important that you call 911 if you suffered an injury, are bleeding, are swollen, or see exposed tissue.

How Is Shoulder Pain Treated?

Treating shoulder pain will depend on the severity of shoulder pain and what causes it. Some treatment options can help, such as physical therapy and occupational therapy, wearing a sling or shoulder immobilizer, and in some more severe cases, even surgery. Your shoulder pain doctor might also prescribe you some medication, such as corticosteroids or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications. A corticosteroid is a potent anti-inflammatory drug injected directly into the shoulder or taken by mouth.

There are also minor cases of shoulder pain, which can be treated at home, such as putting an ice pad on the affected area. This can help to reduce the pain. It is also beneficial to rest the shoulder for a couple of days before continuing with normal activity. Avoiding any types of movements that might lead to pain can also help, and you must limit activities and overhead work.

Home treatments can also include over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications, as this can help reduce inflammation and pain.

Can You Prevent Shoulder Pain?

Some simple shoulder exercises can help you to strengthen and stretch the shoulder muscles and the rotator cuff tendons. An occupational therapist and a physical therapist can teach you how to do such exercises properly. If you have suffered from shoulder issues previously, it can be helpful to use an ice pack for 15 minutes after an exercise, as this can prevent future injuries. If you have suffered tendinitis and bursitis, it can help you perform simple range-of-motion exercises daily, preventing frozen shoulder.

This page was published on Dec 16, 2020, modified on Jul 12, 2021 by Dr. Raj Raval, MD (Pain Management Doctor)


The information on this website is to provide general information. In no way does any of the information provided reflect definitive treatment advice. It is essential to consult a best-in-class pain management specialist in New York regarding ANY questions or issues. A thorough evaluation should ALWAYS be performed for an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan. Be sure to call your pain doctor to schedule a consultation.

  • Dr. Raj Raval, M.D.

    1. Board Certified
    2. Interventional Pain & Musculoskeletal Medicine Specialist
  • Education & training

    1. SUNY Downstate PMR Residency
    2. Rutgers University Fellowship
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