Shoulder Pain: Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment


May 26, 2020

Causes of Shoulder Pain

Shoulder pain is uncomfortable, inconvenient, and takes away from someone’s quality of life when severe. Shoulder pain means different things to different people. For some, this type of pain is severe aching and immobility that starts as a result from an injury. For others,  acute shoulder pain comes on suddenly from something as simple as sleeping the wrong way. The following is a list of conditions that can cause shoulder pain….

  • Avascular Necrosis (death of bone tissue caused by limited blood flow) 
  • Bursitis (swelling of the bursa, the fluid-filled sack, that lies in the joints and allows for fluid joint movement)
  • Brachial Plexus Injury (when nerves are stretched, compressed, or torn)
  • Dislocated Shoulder (overextension of the joint)
  • Broken Collarbone
  • Frozen Shoulder (built up adhesions in the joint that prevent movement)
  • Heart Attack 
  • Impingement (occurs when tendons get pinched in the bones of the shoulder)
  • Osteoarthritis (also known as degenerative joint disease and most common form of arthritis)
  • Tendonitis (inflammation of the tendons)
  • Polymyalgia Rheumatica (inflammatory condition that causes shoulder stiffness)
  • Rotator Cuff Injury (damage to group of muscles and tendons that allow you to lift arm over head, can be caused by repetitive movement, overuse, or in a fall)
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis (when the body’s immune system attacks the protective lining of joints)
  • Sprains
  • Tendon Rupture
  • Torn Cartilage (can occur from repetitive movements or a fall where the shoulder absorbs a significant amount of force)
  • Septic Arthritis (infection of the joint)
  • Separated Shoulder (when the acromioclavicular joint, or AC joint, ligaments are torn causing a separation in the collarbone and shoulder blade)

Diagnosis & Treatment 

In order to obtain a definitive diagnosis regarding shoulder pain patients should always be evaluated by a physician. Doctors will likely complete an exam, ask questions about the pain, have the patient describe the type of pain, (i.e. burning, aching, sharp, dull, etc.)  rate their pain on a scale of 1-10, and check range of motion in the shoulder. If necessary, imaging may be requested such as x-rays or an MRI. 

 If your shoulder looks deformed, if you are unable to use your shoulder, if there is sudden swelling, if there is intense pain, or numbness/weakness that moves down through your hands it is recommended that you seek medical treatment immediately. If you have a known injury (i.e. fell and dislocated shoulder) you should seek immediate treatment. Treatment for shoulder pain that falls under this category  could include physical therapy, nerve blocks, surgery, or corticosteroid injections. 

If the shoulder pain is a gradual onset or becomes a bother but is not severe, does not interfere with your normal activities, or prevent you from everyday movements, try rest and ice at home as a first line of treatment. You may also use over-the-counter pain relievers like Ibuprofen and Acetaminophen to help ease the pain. 

If you are looking for an alternative, drug-free therapy. Turning to yoga, acupuncture, chiropractic treatment, massage, and aromatherapy have all proven to be useful in treating pain.