The shoulder is a very complex joint that along with the muscles and ligaments allow a wide range of motion in the arm — from scratching your back to throwing a ball. However, this mobility comes at a cost and may lead to problems like instability ,impingement or wear and tear of the soft tissue and bony structures,which result in pain. The patient may feel pain only when they move their shoulder or all the time. The pain may be temporarily relieved by rest for few days. If pain persists, medical intervention may be needed

In this article we will try to explain some of the common causes of shoulder pain, as well as some general treatment options. For more detailed information about shoulder pain you should consult a specialist.

Common conditions that can result in chronic shoulder pain include: rotator cuff disorders, adhesive capsulitis, frozen shoulder, arthritis, tendinitis, muscle tear and injury to the shoulder joint. Rotator cuff disorders include tendinitis, partial or complete tears. A clinical diagnosis of rotator cuff tears include pain with overhead activity, pain and weakness on empty can and external rotation tests, and a positive impingement sign. Adhesive capsulitis can be associated with diabetes and thyroid disorders. Acromioclavicular joint pain is also associated with range of motion at shoulder. Biceps tendinitis is a very common feature with passive and active range of motion of shoulder joint. Clinical presentation includes diffuse shoulder pain with restricted passive range of motion on examination.

Nearly 60% of shoulder pain subsides within one year of conservative treatment, but it tends to recur with time again and again. Symptom pattern is characterized by pain that is increased by sleeping on the affected side.


The shoulder is made up of three bones the upper arm bone (humerus), the shoulder blade (scapula), and the collarbone (clavicle).

The head of the upper arm bone fits into a rounded socket in the shoulder blade. This socket is called the glenoid. A combination of muscles and ligaments keeps the arm bone centered in the shoulder socket. These muscles are called the rotator cuff. They cover the head of your upper arm bone and attach it to the shoulder blade.


Most shoulder problems fall into four major categories:

  • Inflammation (bursitis or tendinitis) or
  • tendon tear
  • Instability
  • Arthritis (wear and tear of joint surface)
  • Fracture (broken bone)
  • Rotator cuff disorders and tears.
  • Glenohumeral disorder like adhesive capsulitis (‘frozen shoulder’), arthritis.
  • Subacromial pain, also referred to as subacromial bursitis, tendonitis.
  • Calcified tendonitis.
  • Biceps tendonitis
  • Acromioclavicular disorders.
  • Other much less common causes of shoulder pain are tumors, infection, and nerve-related problems.



    Bursae are small, fluid-filled sacs that are located in joints throughout the body, including the shoulder. They act as cushions between the bones and the overlying soft tissues, and help reduce friction between the gliding muscles and the bone.
    Sometimes, excessive use of the shoulder leads to inflammation and swelling of the bursa between the rotator cuff and part of the shoulder blade known as the acromion. The result is a condition known as subacromial bursitis.
    Bursitis often occurs in association with rotator cuff tendinitis. The many tissues in the shoulder can become inflamed and painful. Many daily activities, such as combing your hair or getting dressed, may become difficult.


    A tendon is a cord that connects muscle to bone. Most tendinitis is a result of inflammation in the tendon.
    Generally, tendinitis is one of two types:

    • Acute. Excessive ball throwing or other overhead activities during work or sport can lead to acute tendinitis.
    • Chronic. Degenerative diseases like arthritis or repetitive wear and tear due to age, can lead to chronic tendinitis.
      The most commonly affected tendons in the shoulder are the four rotator cuff tendons and one of the biceps tendons

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    Tendon Tears

    Splitting and tearing of tendons may result from acute injury or degenerative changes in the tendons due to advancing age, long-term overuse and wear and tear, or a sudden injury. These tears may be partial or may completely separate the tendon from its attachment to bone. In most cases of complete tears, the tendon is pulled away from its attachment to the bone. Rotator cuff and biceps tendon injuries are among the most common of these injuries.


    Shoulder impingement occurs when the top of the shoulder blade (acromion) puts pressure on the underlying soft tissues when the arm is lifted away from the body. As the arm is lifted, the acromion rubs, or “impinges” on, the rotator cuff tendons and bursa. This can lead to bursitis and tendinitis, causing pain and limiting movement.


    Shoulder instability occurs when the head of the upper arm bone is forced out of the shoulder socket. This can happen as a result of a sudden injury or from overuse.

    Shoulder dislocations can be partial, with the ball of the upper arm coming just partially out of the socket. This is called a subluxation. A complete dislocation means the ball comes all the way out of the socket.
    Once the ligaments, tendons, and muscles around the shoulder become loose or torn, dislocations can occur repeatedly. Recurring dislocations, which may be partial or complete, cause pain and unsteadiness when the patient raise their arm or move it away from their body. Repeated episodes of subluxations or dislocations lead to an increased risk of developing arthritis in the joint.


    Shoulder pain can also result from arthritis. There are many types of arthritis. The most common type of arthritis in the shoulder is osteoarthritis, also known as “wear and tear” arthritis. Symptoms such as swelling, pain, and stiffness, typically begin during middle age. Osteoarthritis develops slowly and the pain it causes worsens over time.
    Osteoarthritis, may be related to sports or work injuries or chronic wear and tear. Other types of arthritis can be related to rotator cuff tears, infection, or an inflammation of the joint lining.
    Often people will avoid shoulder movements in an attempt to lessen arthritis pain. This sometimes leads to a tightening or stiffening of the soft tissue parts of the joint, resulting in a painful restriction of motion (frozen shoulder ).


    Fractures are broken bones. Shoulder fractures commonly involve the clavicle (collarbone), humerus (upper arm bone), and scapula (shoulder blade).
    Shoulder fractures in older patients are often the result of a fall from standing height. In younger patients, shoulder fractures are often caused by a high energy injury, such as a motor vehicle accident or contact sports injury.
    Fractures often cause severe pain, swelling, and bruising about the shoulder

    When to see specialist/doctor for shoulder pain ?

    In the case of an acute injury causing intense pain, seek medical care as soon as possible. If the pain is less severe, it may be safe to rest a few days to see if time will resolve the problem. If symptoms persist, see a doctor.
    Your doctor will conduct a thorough evaluation in order to determine the cause of your shoulder pain and provide you with treatment options.

    Medical History

    The first step in the evaluation is a thorough medical history. Your doctor may ask how and when the pain started, whether it has occurred before and how it was treated, and other questions to help determine both your general health and the possible causes of your shoulder problem

    Physical Examination

    A comprehensive examination will be required to find the causes of your shoulder pain. Your doctor will look for physical abnormalities, swelling, deformity or muscle weakness, and check for tender areas. He or she will observe your shoulder range of motion and strength. Tests
    Your doctor may order specific tests to help identify the cause of your pain and any other problems.
    X-rays. These pictures will show any injuries to the bones that make up your shoulder joint.
    Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and ultrasound. These imaging studies create better pictures of soft tissues. MRI may help your doctor identify injuries to the ligaments and tendons surrounding your shoulder joint.
    Computed tomography (CT) scan. This tool combines x-rays with computer technology to produce a very detailed view of the bones in the shoulder area.
    Electrical studies. Your doctor may order a test, such as an EMG (electromyogram), to evaluate nerve function.
    Arthrogram. During this x-ray study, dye is injected into the shoulder to better show the joint and its surrounding muscles and tendons. It may be combined with an MRI.
    Arthroscopy. In this surgical procedure, your doctor looks inside the joint with a fiber-optic camera. Arthroscopy may show soft tissue injuries that are not apparent from the physical examination, x-rays, and other tests. In addition to helping find the cause of pain, arthroscopy may be used to correct the problem.


    Activity Changes

    Treatment generally involves rest, altering your activities, and physical therapy to help you improve shoulder strength and flexibility. Common sense solutions such as avoiding overexertion or overdoing activities in which you normally do not participate can help to prevent shoulder pain.


    Your doctor may prescribe medication to reduce inflammation and pain. If medication is prescribed to relieve pain, it should be taken only as directed. Your doctor may also recommend injections of numbing medicines or steroids to relieve pain.


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