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Shoulder Popping Symptoms, Causes & Common Questions

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Last updated June 17, 2022

Shoulder popping quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your shoulder popping.

Shoulder popping may be caused by a traumatic shoulder injury during sports, repetitive wear-and-tear during weight-lifting or a result of aging. The shoulder joint is a mobile ball and socket joint formed by three bones - shoulder blade, collarbone and upper arm. Depending on which of the three bones is the cause of shoulder pain, we recommend different treatment options and physical therapy. See below for causes and treatments. We also prepared a free digital checker to help you self-diagnose and find the right care.

6 most common causes

Biceps Tendonitis
Illustration of various health care options.
Rotator cuff tear
Dislocated Shoulder
Rotator Cuff Tendonitis
Illustration of a person thinking with cross bandaids.
Broken collarbone
Illustration of a health care worker swabbing an individual.
Acromioclavicular (ac) shoulder joint injury

Shoulder popping quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your shoulder popping.

Take shoulder popping quiz

Shoulder popping symptoms

People who participate in sports activities such as tennis or heavy weightlifting may experience sensations of popping, catching or locking of the shoulder joint after a lot of activity.

Common accompanying symptoms of shoulder popping

Shoulder popping may occur without sports activity and may include other symptoms such as:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Visibly deformed or out-of-place shoulder
  • Limited range of motion
  • Decreased strength
  • Feeling of instability in the shoulder

Shoulder structure

The shoulder is a very mobile joint and vulnerable to displacement. The shoulder joint consists of the shoulder blade (scapula), the collarbone (clavicle) and the bone of the upper arm (humerus). The head of the humerus sits in a socket of the scapula called the glenoid. There is a ring of tissue that surrounds the glenoid socket (labrum) that keeps all of these pieces in place. See this image for a visual representation. When there is displacement of this system of bones, sockets and tissue, the shoulder will feel as if it has popped out of place. No matter what the cause is, see a physician for appropriate care.

Causes of shoulder popping

The following details may help you better understand your symptoms and if and when you need to see a physician.

Traumatic causes

Shoulder popping may occur due to trauma, such as the following.

  • Falling on an outstretched arm
  • A direct blow to the shoulder
  • A sudden forceful pull: Such as when trying to lift a heavy object from the ground

Overuse

Overuse of the shoulder can result in popping.

  • Repetitive activities: Activities that cause repetitive shoulder motions such as tennis or weightlifting can cause an overuse injury to the shoulder joint.
  • Workplace tasks

Aging

Wear-and-tear over a long period can weaken the shoulder joint. As a result, people over the age of 40 are more susceptible to such symptoms.

5 causes of shoulder popping

This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Biceps tendon rupture

The biceps muscle in the upper arm is anchored at the top by two separate tendons. One connects to the shoulder blade and one connects to the top of the shoulder joint. If one of these tendons is strained enough to completely tear it in two, this is called a rupture.

The injury is most common in people over age 40, especially after years of overuse of the shoulder. The person may have had episodes of biceps tendinitis in the past, which is a sign of fraying and damage to the tendon. In younger people it is primarily an acute sports injury, from weightlifting or from falling.

Symptoms include a pop or snap at the top of the shoulder, with sharp pain. There may soon be bruising halfway down the upper arm with obvious "balling up" of the partially disconnected muscle.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, x-rays, and sometimes MRI.

Treatment involves over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication; rest; ice; and physical therapy. Surgery may be done in some cases.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: pain in one shoulder, pain in the front of the shoulder, spontaneous shoulder pain, dull, achy shoulder pain, shoulder pain that gets worse at night

Symptoms that always occur with biceps tendon rupture: pain in the front of the shoulder, pain in one shoulder

Urgency: Primary care docto

Shoulder popping quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your shoulder popping.

Take shoulder popping quiz

Rotator cuff tendonitis

The rotator cuff is an arrangement of muscles and tendons that holds the head of upper arm bone within the shoulder socket. If these muscles become inflamed, the condition is called rotator cuff tendonitis.

The most common cause is overuse, especially with athletes or laborers.

Repeatedly throwing or swinging an object causes extensive wear on the muscles and tendons. It can also happen with an acute injury.

Symptoms include a nagging, aching pain in the upper arm and shoulder that gets worse with raising the arms or reaching backwards.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination, x-ray, and sometimes MRI.

Early treatment involves immediately stopping use of the affected shoulder, applying ice to the painful area, and taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen to ease pain and inflammation. Careful stretching can sometimes help. Cortisone injections may be tried, as well as ultrasound and therapeutic massage.

Surgery may be advised to remove damaged tissue or any bone spurs. Follow-up care and exercises will be very important in gaining full recovery.

Rotator cuff tear

The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that surround the shoulder joint, keeping the head of the upper arm bone firmly within the shallow socket of the shoulder. A rotator cuff injury (tear) can cause a dull ache in the shoulder, which often worsens when sleeping on the involved side.

You should visit your primary care physician who will coordinate care with a muscle and bone specialist (orthopedic surgeon). Treatments for rotator cuff tears vary depending on the severity of the tear, but usually involve rest, over-the-counter pain medication, steroid injections, physical therapy, and surgery in some cases.

Dislocated shoulder with nerve or artery damage

The shoulder is a ball and socket joint. This means the round top of the arm bone fits into the groove in the shoulder blade. A dislocated shoulder is when the entire ball is out of the socket. If the dislocation affects blood supply or a nerve, medical attention is extremely important.

You should go to the ER immediately for treatment. A dislocated shoulder that affects blood supply or damages a nerve may require immediate surgery to keep the whole arm healthy.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: pain in one shoulder, arm weakness, shoulder pain from an injury, severe shoulder pain, arm numbness

Symptoms that always occur with dislocated shoulder with nerve or artery damage: pain in one shoulder, shoulder dislocation

Urgency: Hospital emergency room

Dislocated shoulder

The shoulder is a ball and socket joint. This means the round top of the arm bone fits into the groove in the shoulder blade. A dislocated shoulder is when the entire ball is out of the socket.

A dislocated shoulder requires immediate medical attention in order to 1) confirm diagnosis with an X-ray, and 2) pop the shoulder back in place and immobilize it (to start the healing process). Surgery is considered if this keeps happening.

Broken collarbone

The clavicle is the collar bone. Clavicle fractures are often caused by a direct blow to the shoulder, for example during a fall onto the shoulder, a car collision, or a fall onto an outstretched arm. This fracture is an extremely common bone fracture in people of all ages.

You should seek immediate medical care at an urgent care clinic or ER. This type of fracture is almost never a cause for concern, but it can be very painful and it is important to obtain and X-Ray to rule out any other damage. Treatment will most likely involve carrying your arm in a sling.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: constant shoulder pain, pain in one shoulder, arm weakness, shoulder pain from an injury, collarbone pain

Symptoms that always occur with broken collarbone: collarbone pain, shoulder pain that gets worse with movement, difficulty moving the shoulder, collarbone bulge, constant shoulder pain

Urgency: Hospital emergency room

Biceps tendonitis

Biceps tendinitis, also called biceps tendonitis, is an inflammation of one of the upper tendons of the biceps muscle in the upper arm.

The biceps is anchored at its lower end near the elbow. About halfway up the arm it divides into two parts, one a little longer than the other. One part, the "short head" or shorter of the divided muscles, attaches to the shoulder blade. The other, the "long head," attaches to the top of the shoulder.

Biceps tendinitis is usually caused by overuse, especially repetitive throwing-type motions of the arm. It is primarily a sports injury.

Symptoms include a throbbing, aching pain in the shoulder that may radiate down the arm. Any throwing, lifting, or pulling movement may produce pain in the shoulder.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination and ultrasound, and possibly with CT scan and/or MRI.

Treatment begins with rest, ice, over-the-counter pain relievers, and physical therapy. It may also include injections of local anesthetic and/or corticosteroids into the biceps tendon sheath. Surgery may be needed in some cases.

Acromioclavicular (ac) shoulder joint injury

The shoulder is made up of three bones - the shoulder blade (scapula), collar bone (clavicle), and arm bone (humerus). The acromioclavicular (AC) joint is a joint that is in the front of the shoulder, where the collar bone and shoulder blade meet. This joint is stabilized by ligaments, which can tear if the two bones are separated from one another. AC shoulder joint injury is most commonly caused by falling on the shoulder.

You should visit your primary care physician within the next 24 hours. AC joint injuries are usually treated non-surgically with pain medications and wearing a shoulder sling. Your doctor may coordinate care with a physical therapist as well.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: constant shoulder pain, pain in one shoulder, shoulder pain from an injury, shoulder pain near the end of the collarbone, difficulty moving the shoulder

Symptoms that always occur with acromioclavicular (ac) shoulder joint injury: shoulder pain near the end of the collarbone, constant shoulder pain

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Shoulder popping quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your shoulder popping.

Take shoulder popping quiz

Shoulder popping treatments and relief

See your doctor promptly if you experience such shoulder popping symptoms as described above.

Medical treatments

Depending on your diagnosis, your doctor may suggest the following.

  • Immobilization (sling): Your doctor may use a sling to keep your shoulder from moving and allow your tissues to heal.
  • Rehabilitation: Your doctor may recommend stretching exercises or a physical therapy program to help you restore range of motion, strength, and stability to your shoulder.
  • Medication: Your doctor may prescribe medication or a muscle relaxant to help with swelling or pain and keep you comfortable while your shoulder heals.
  • Surgery: If more conservative measures such as those above are ineffective, your doctor may recommend surgery.

Questions your doctor may ask about shoulder popping

  • Did you just suffer from a high impact injury (e.g., a fall, collision, accident or sports trauma)?
  • How would you explain the cause of your shoulder pain?
  • Did you feel your shoulder pop out of place?
  • Hold your arms out to the side. Have someone push your arms down. Does it hurt your shoulder to resist?

Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.

Shoulder popping statistics

People who have experienced shoulder popping have also experienced:

  • 30% Pain In One Shoulder
  • 20% Grinding Sensation In Shoulder
  • 8% Shoulder Pain

People who have experienced shoulder popping were most often matched with:

  • 46% Dislocated Shoulder With Nerve Or Artery Damage
  • 30% Acromioclavicular (Ac) Shoulder Joint Injury
  • 23% Biceps Tendon Rupture

Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from Buoy Assistant (a.k.a. the quiz).

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Dr. Rothschild has been a faculty member at Brigham and Women’s Hospital where he is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He currently practices as a hospitalist at Newton Wellesley Hospital. In 1978, Dr. Rothschild received his MD at the Medical College of Wisconsin and trained in internal medicine followed by a fellowship in critical care medicine. He also received an MP...
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References

  1. Shoulder Cartilage and Tendon Injuries. The Permanente Medical Group: My Doctor Online. My Doctor Online Link.
  2. Bellendir T, Joseph TN, eds. Common Injuries of the Shoulder. University of Rochester Medical Center. URMC Link.
  3. Types of Shoulder Sprains, Strains & Tears. NYU Langone Health. NYU Langone Link.
  4. Sciascia AD, Kibler WB. Scapular (Shoulder Blade) Disorders. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: OrthoInfo. Updated March 2017. OrthoInfo Link.