Six Possible Reasons for Shoulder Pain

The shoulder’s greatest blessing—its unmatched mobility—can also be a curse.

Throwing, catching, reaching, lifting, pushing and pulling-the shoulder helps make it all possible. That’s because the shoulder has a wider range of motion than any other joint in the body, according to the National Institutes of Health. The complexity of the shoulder’s ball-and-socket construction allows for exceptional versatility, but its many elements can be subject to overuse and damage.

If you’re experiencing shoulder pain, here are six potential explanations:

  • You’re missing cartilage. Arthritis destroys cartilage, which cushions the shoulder during movement and can occur after years of use or following an acute injury. Symptoms can include pain, especially when reaching overhead, and loss of motion.
  • There’s too much friction. Bursitis is inflammation that affects the fluid-filled pouches (bursae) that allow shoulder bones and soft tissues to glide rather than rub against each other. Usually the result of injury or repetitive use, bursitis causes pain that may come and go.
  • Your shoulder has fallen out of proper position. An injury that occurs when some sort of trauma, such as a fall, knocks the ball out of the socket, a shoulder dislocation can cause intense pain, swelling and numbness and reduce range of motion.
  • You have a broken bone. Trauma can cause a fracture of any of the three bones that make up the shoulder, resulting in pain, swelling and loss of movement.
  • An important tissue is torn. The rotator cuff—a group of muscles and tendons—is the glue that holds the shoulder together. A rotator cuff tear can happen suddenly due to injury or gradually because of wear and tear, causing pain with movement and at rest.
  • Your tendons are tired. Caused by inflammation in the tendons, usually of the rotator cuff, tendinitis is a painful condition that often occurs due to overuse. It can also develop after an injury.

Soothing the Shoulder

Every case of shoulder pain is different. Some people may be able to eliminate or control discomfort with one or more nonsurgical treatments. Although surgery for shoulder pain is uncommon, it may be the most successful option for individuals who don’t respond to nonsurgical treatments. Here’s a look at what each treatment category entails.

Nonsurgical treatments include icing the shoulder, avoiding activities that irritate the joint and taking over-the-counter pain relievers. A healthcare provider may recommend physical therapy to strengthen the joint and improve range of motion or prescribe medication or steroid injections.

Surgical treatments may involve repairing a fracture or rotator cuff tear or replacing a deteriorated joint. For some procedures, such as rotator cuff repair, surgeons may use arthroscopy—a technique featuring a scope and a small incision—rather than open surgery.


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