What Causes Pain in Both Shoulders? Your Symptoms Explained
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Causes of why both your shoulders hurt include strain and tension in the muscles from poor posture, overuse, or trauma from an injury that may also cause neck and shoulder pain. Read below for more information on causes and how to relieve shoulder pain on both arms.
Pain in both shoulders symptoms
Shoulder pain is one of the most common reasons for a person to visit a doctor. The shoulder joints are very versatile, flexible, and mobile, but these traits also leave them vulnerable to injury. Due to the configuration of your nervous system, your shoulders may also register the pain coming from other parts of the body. This configuration means that you should not ignore the pain in one or both shoulders, especially if it seems to be happening for no apparent reason.
Common characteristics of pain in both shoulders
If you are experiencing pain in both shoulders, it can likely present with:
- Shoulder pain, heat, and redness over the joints
- Pain that is deep, aching, and/or burning
- Pressure or tightness in both shoulders and both arms: Especially when walking or otherwise exercising
- Pain with tingling in the arm and hand
Who is most often affected?
People who fit the following descriptions are likely to experience pain in both shoulders at some point.
- People who do hard labor: Strenuous physical work such as digging, cutting wood, or moving heavy objects can cause pain.
- Athletes: Such as people who play baseball, tennis, or other sports involving overhead throwing or hitting.
- Anyone with a disease of the heart, liver, or gallbladder
- Anyone who has suffered a heart attack
Is pain in both shoulders serious?
The severity of pain in both shoulders is ultimately dependent on the cause.
- Not serious: Shoulder pain that comes on gradually and improves with rest is probably not serious.
- Moderately serious: Shoulder pain caused by an acute injury can usually heal quite well if treated right away.
- Serious: Sudden, severe pain in both shoulders that seems to have no apparent cause can be very serious and should be treated as a medical emergency.
Pain in both shoulders causes
Many conditions can have pain in both shoulders as a symptom. The following details may help you better understand your symptoms and if and when you need to see a physician.
Most common causes
The most common causes of pain in both shoulders include the following.
- Inflammation of your muscles and/or tendons
- Tension in the muscles of your neck and shoulder: Tension is likely due to stress or poor posture. You're more likely to have poor posture if you spend long hours sitting at a desk or bending over a table or an assembly line.
- Chronic overuse injury: This type of injury occurs when you make the same motion with the shoulder over and over again. Swinging tennis rackets, hitting baseballs, or lifting weights are potential causes . This injury can result in a sprain, strain, tear, or other damage to the joints, tendons, muscles, and bursa.
- Trauma: Examples of trauma include a fall, an automobile accident, or an acute sports injury.
Less common causes
The following are less common causes of pain in both shoulders.
- Autoimmune diseases: These diseases often cause repeated episodes of inflammation. Inflammation will eventually damage cartilage and bone and cause chronic pain.
- Neurologic diseases: These diseases damage the nerves and cause neuropathic pain.
- Severe infections of the bones or cartilage
Rare and unusual causes
The following are rare causes of pain in both shoulders.
- Aging: You may acquire degenerative diseases of the bone and cartilage of the neck and shoulders.
- Referred pain: Referred pain starts in another part of your body but is felt in your shoulders. In rare cases, pain in both shoulders can originate in tumors elsewhere in the body.
Examples of referred pain
The following are examples of pain that originates elsewhere in the body but may affect your shoulders.
- Tingling in the arm and hand: The neck may be the starting point.
- Tightness and discomfort in the arms: This tightness can indicate heart disease. If you continue to experience this discomfort, treat this as a medical emergency even if you don't have chest pain.
- Pain in the right upper abdomen: Pain in this area can be due to liver or gallbladder disease.
This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.
Shoulder arthritis is inflammation of the shoulder joint, where the upper arm bone (humerus) meets the shoulder blade (scapula) and collarbone (clavicle). This inflammation can be caused by osteoarthritis or "wear-and-tear," injury to the shoulder joints, rotator cuff injuries, or r...
Frozen shoulder (adhesive capsulitis of the shoulder)
Frozen shoulder is also called adhesive capsulitis of the shoulder. The "shoulder capsule" is the strong web of connective tissue which holds the ball joint of the upper arm inside the socket of the shoulder blade. If this connective tissue is damaged, scar tissue – or adhesions – may form and cause the shoulder capsule to become tight, painful, and inflexible.
The condition can happen if an injury to the shoulder forces it to stay immobilized while healing. Additional risk factors may be diabetes, thyroid abnormalities, and heart disease.
Symptoms include gradual worsening of the ability to move the shoulder, due to increasing pain and stiffness in the outer shoulder and upper arm.
Diagnosis is made through physical examination, with simple tests to measure how far the shoulder can move, as well as imaging such as x-ray or MRI.
Treatment involves physical therapy to help restore range of motion; over-the-counter, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to ease pain; and sometimes cortisone injections to the shoulder joint. Surgery may be needed in some cases.
Top Symptoms: spontaneous shoulder pain, stiff shoulder, dull, achy shoulder pain, shoulder pain that gets worse at night, difficulty moving the shoulder
Symptoms that always occur with frozen shoulder (adhesive capsulitis of the shoulder): stiff shoulder
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Non-specific shoulder pain
Non-specific shoulder pain, also called NSSP, means that the cause of pain in the shoulder is not immediately obvious.
There are many structures in and around the shoulder. The pain may be from a condition or injury in the joint itself, or in any of the bones, muscles, tendons, and ligaments surrounding it. Anything from a broken arm to arthritis can cause shoulder pain.
Symptoms include pain that worsens with movement of the arm and shoulder, especially following overuse, or injury. Swelling, redness, joint deformity, inability to move the arm, or severe pain should be seen right away by a medical provider.
Shoulder pain with shortness of breath and/or pain or tightness in the chest can be signs of a heart attack. Take the patient to the emergency room or call 9-1-1.
Diagnosis is made through physical examination and through x-ray or CT scan.
Treatment usually begins with rest and over-the-counter, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory pain relievers. Further care will be determined by medical providers once the exact cause of the pain has been determined.
Top Symptoms: shoulder pain
Symptoms that always occur with non-specific shoulder pain: shoulder pain
Repetitive strain injury of the shoulder ("swimmer's shoulder")
Repetitive strain injury of the shoulder is caused by consistent repetitive use.
Top Symptoms: shoulder pain from overuse, shoulder weakness, shoulder numbness
Symptoms that always occur with repetitive strain injury of the shoulder ("swimmer's shoulder"): shoulder pain from overuse
Symptoms that never occur with repetitive strain injury of the shoulder ("swimmer's shoulder"): severe shoulder pain, shoulder injury
Pain In Both Shoulders Symptom Checker
Brachial plexopathy (shoulder nerve issue)
The brachial plexus is a web of nerves between the neck and shoulder, connecting the spinal cord nerves to the arm. There is one web on each side of the neck. Any injury that forces the shoulder to stretch down, and the neck to stretch up and away, can damage these nerves and cause brachial plexopathy.
Sports injuries and car accidents are often involved. Inflammation, tumors, and radiation treatment can also damage the brachial plexus.
Milder symptoms include numbness and weakness in the arm, with a shocklike stinging or burning sensation. A more severe injury can cause paralysis and loss of feeling in the arm, with pain in some parts of the arm, hand, and shoulder.
These symptoms should be seen by a medical provider since permanent damage can result if the injuries are not treated.
Diagnosis is made through electromyography (EMG) testing, CT scan, MRI, and sometimes angiogram.
Treatment usually involves rest and physical therapy. Surgery may be necessary to remove scar tissue or repair the damaged nerves.
Top Symptoms: pain in one arm, shoulder pain that shoots to the arm, arm weakness, numbness in one arm, shoulder pain
Symptoms that never occur with brachial plexopathy (shoulder nerve issue): pain in the front middle part of the neck
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Pinched nerve in the neck
A pinched nerve in the neck is also called cervical radiculopathy. It means that a nerve in the neck, at a point where it branches off from the spinal cord, is being compressed by the surrounding bones, muscles, or other tissues.
It can be caused by a traumatic injury, such as from sports or an automobile accident, especially if the injury results in a herniated disk. It may also arise from the normal wear and tear of aging.
Symptoms include sharp, burning pain with numbness and tingling from the neck to the shoulder, as well as weakness and numbness into the arm and hand.
Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and simple neurological tests to check the reflexes. Imaging such as x-ray, CT scan, or MRI may be done, as well as electromyography to measure nerve impulses in the muscles.
A pinched nerve in the neck often improves with simply a few days or weeks of rest. Physical therapy, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and steroid injections into the spine can all be very helpful.
Top Symptoms: pain in one shoulder, spontaneous shoulder pain, pain that radiates down arm, pain in the back of the neck, severe shoulder pain
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Fibromyalgia is a set of chronic symptoms that include ongoing fatigue, diffuse tenderness to touch, musculoskeletal pain, and usually some degree of depression.
The cause is not known. When fibromyalgia appears, it is usually after a stressful physical or emotional event such as an automobile accident or a divorce. It may include a genetic component where the person experiences normal sensation as pain.
Almost 90% of fibromyalgia sufferers are women. Anyone with rheumatic disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, may be more prone to fibromyalgia.
Poor sleep is often a symptom, along with foggy thinking, headaches, painful menstrual periods, and increased sensitivity to heat, cold, bright lights, and loud noises.
There is no standard test for fibromyalgia. The diagnosis is usually made when the above symptoms go on for three months or more with no apparent cause.
Fibromyalgia does not go away on its own but does not get worse, either.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, arthralgias or myalgias, anxiety, depressed mood, headache
Symptoms that always occur with fibromyalgia: arthralgias or myalgias
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Arthritis is a general term for multiple conditions that cause painful inflammation and stiffness throughout the body. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic condition that is autoimmune in nature, meaning that the body's immune system which normally protects the body by att...
Pain in both shoulders treatments and relief
You can try the following treatments for pain in both shoulders at home.
- Apply heat or ice to the painful joints
- Pain medication: Take over-the-counter, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), or aspirin to ease the pain.
- Improve posture when you're sitting and standing
- Move thoughtfully: Exercise appropriately and listen to your physician or physical therapist.
- Address weight and overall health: Change your diet and exercise habits to lose any excess weight. Losing weight will allow more freedom of movement and ease the stress on your joints.
When to see a doctor
You should consult your physician to address the following.
- If the pain worsens with rest: See a physician for severe pain and stiffness in both shoulders that is worse with rest and better with activity, especially if you also have flu-like symptoms.
- Pain that does not improve within two weeks
When it is an emergency
Seek immediate treatment in the emergency room or call 911 if:
- You have pain, pressure, tightness, or other discomforts in both shoulders and both arms, even if you do not have chest pain
- You have severe, constant, intractable pain in both shoulders, for no apparent reason
- You suffer an injury that results in pain in both shoulders, even with no outer sign of trauma
Pain in both shoulders is preventable if you keep your posture in mind, especially if you must remain still throughout the day for long periods. Take breaks for a few minutes every hour to stretch, change positions, and to release tense muscles. Maintain a regular exercise regimen with proper techniques to improve your overall health.
Questions your doctor may ask about pain in both shoulders
- How would you explain the cause of your shoulder pain?
- Can you fully move your shoulders around?
- Have you ever been diagnosed with diabetes?
- Where exactly is your shoulder pain?
Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.
Janeen has worked over eight years as a full-time medical transcriptionist, specializing in pain management and gynecologic oncology. She later began transcribing reports for hospital emergency rooms and acute care admissions. This background gave her a strong medical vocabulary as well as a heart for making medical information accessible to the average person, leading her to work as a medical writer. She began as a pre-veterinary medicine major at Texas State University.
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