Understanding shoulder pain

Your shoulder is the most mobile joint in your body and may be more prone to injuries because of this. It has four tendons called the rotator cuff that allow it to have such a wide range of mobility. Your doctor defines shoulder pain as any pain around your shoulder joint.

Patient showing shoulder pain

What are the symptoms of shoulder pain?

If you’re suffering from shoulder pain, one or more of these symptoms may be familiar:

  • Swelling
  • Pain when lifting your arm above your head
  • Pain when moving your shoulder forward
  • Pain when moving your shoulder behind your back

What are the causes of shoulder pain?

You may have experienced the most common cause of shoulder pain – a condition where the rotator cuff becomes trapped under the bony area in your shoulder, often due to a sports or other injury. When this happens the tendons become inflamed or damaged and cause pain. The medical term for this condition is “rotator cuff tendinitis”. Other causes of shoulder pain can be:

  • Bone spurs
  • Bursitis
  • Dislocating or separating your shoulder
  • Frozen shoulder - this happens when your muscles, tendons, and ligaments inside the shoulder become stiff and painful to move
  • Overuse or injury to the tendons near the shoulder like your biceps
  • Tears in your rotator cuff tendons
  • Shoulder pain may also be caused by a problem in another part of the body like the neck and lungs

When should I see my doctor?

Doctor showing patient something
  • You have a painful shoulder accompanied by a fever, swelling or any redness
  • You are having problems moving it
  • You’ve had shoulder pain for longer than 2 weeks, even after you’ve treated it with over-the-counter medication
  • You notice swelling in your shoulder
  • The skin around your shoulder is red or blue

Get immediate medical help if:

  • If you experience sudden pressure or crushing pain in your shoulder. In some cases, sudden shoulder pain may be a sign of a heart attack. This is particularly important if your pain runs from the chest to the left jaw, arm or neck, and you’re short of breath, dizzy, or sweating.
  • If you’ve just had a severe injury and your shoulder is in extreme pain, is swollen, bruised or bleeding, go to your hospital emergency room and have it examined.

What treatments are available for shoulder pain?

Before treatment

You can expect a physical exam that involves looking closely at your shoulder. You’ll also be asked in-depth questions that can help your doctor diagnose your condition such as:

  • How and when did the pain start?
  • Is this a new pain or a recurrence of an old pain?
  • If it has occurred in the past, how was it treated?

Once you’re diagnosed

There are several ways your doctor might treat your shoulder pain once it’s diagnosed. You can also ask your doctor to recommend specific shoulder exercises and stretches that can strengthen your rotator cuff tendons and shoulder muscles. Depending on the seriously of your pain your treatments could range from:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) – these include topical NSAIDs such as diclofenac gel as well as the ones you take by mouth such as ibuprofen or aspirin
  • Corticosteroid medication injected directly into your shoulder
  • Physiotherapy
  • Surgery as a last resort if other treatments don’t work

Lifestyle tips for shoulder pain

The following tips can help prevent future shoulder pain:

  • Use ice before exercising
  • If you’re getting over tendinitis, make sure you regularly do range-of-motion exercises your doctor of physiotherapist has recommended to avoid another frozen shoulder

Always consult with your physician before starting a new exercise regimen or routine.

If you have any other aches or pains, you may find the tips in the Muscle Pain and Neck Pain sections helpful.