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Swollen Shoulder Symptoms, Causes & Common Questions

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Last updated January 4, 2021

Swollen shoulder questionnaire

Use our free symptom checker to find out what's causing your swollen shoulder.

Understand swollen shoulder symptoms, including 8 causes & common questions.

Swollen shoulder questionnaire

Use our free symptom checker to find out what's causing your swollen shoulder.

Swollen shoulder symptom checker

Symptoms of a swollen shoulder

Swelling, or edema, is the result of fluid buildup that gets trapped in your body's tissues. Fluid buildup can occur when an area of the body becomes inflamed, injured or damaged. The small blood vessels in the body begin to leak fluid. Moreover, the body can bring in white blood cells to repair the damage, and more fluid follows. Depending on the cause, the swelling can be generalized and occur throughout the body, or localized and only affect a specific part of the body.

Common characteristics of a swollen shoulder

A swollen shoulder is often associated with trauma or injury. Take note of the associated symptoms below if you think you may be experiencing a swollen shoulder:

  • Pain
  • Bruising in the shoulder area
  • Warmth or redness of the affected area
  • Limited range of motion
  • Decreased strength
  • A feeling of instability in the shoulder
  • A visibly deformed or out-of-place shoulder

Seek prompt medical attention if you suspect shoulder swelling as it is often a sign of an underlying injury or chronic condition.

What causes a swollen shoulder

The shoulder is a very mobile joint and vulnerable to injury. 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 (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.

Any condition that causes inflammation, injury or damage to this system can result in shoulder swelling.


Any activities that cause direct trauma to the shoulder area can result in these symptoms. Traumatic injuries include:

  • Falling on an outstretched arm
  • Direct blow: A direct blow to the shoulder can resultfrom a motor vehicle accident or even falling from a bicycle.
  • A sudden, forceful pull: For example, when trying to lift a heavy object from the ground.
  • Displacement or dislocation: This can occur in the system of bones, sockets, and tissue of the shoulder, causing the shoulder to feel as if it has popped out of place.


Activities that cause repetitive shoulder motions such as tennis or weightlifting can cause an overuse injury to the shoulder joint. Repetitive overhead motions you may perform at work can also cause such overuse injuries and lead to symptoms of swelling and pain.


Shoulder swelling can be due to processes that occur as you age, such as the following.

  • Normal wear-and-tear: Wear-and-tear over a long period of time can weaken the shoulder joint. As a result, people over the age of 40 are more susceptible to such symptoms. With advanced age, the greater the exposure to situations that weaken the shoulder system lead to a breakdown of the tissues and ligaments surrounding the joint.
  • Rheumatologic: This category includes inflammatory conditions involving the body's tissues and joints that often affect people of older age. Conditions such as arthritis cause inflammation that easily brings fluid into the tissues, leading to swelling, redness, and tenderness in the joints.

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

Swollen shoulder questionnaire

Use our free symptom checker to find out what's causing your swollen shoulder.

Swollen shoulder symptom checker

Psoriatic arthritis

Psoriatic arthritis is a condition which causes inflammation of the joints. In most circumstances, psoriatic arthritis presents between the ages of 30 and 50 years and occurs after the manifestation of the symptoms of psoriasis, which is a disease of the skin. Psoriatic arthritis..

Rheumatoid arthritis

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..

Shoulder arthritis

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...

Septic arthritis

Septic arthritis is also called infectious arthritis. "Arthritis" simply means inflammation of a joint. In septic arthritis, the inflammation is caused by a bacterial, viral, or fungal infection. The most common is Staphylococcus aureus or staph. These agents reach the joints either from ..

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. This is most commonly caused by falling on the shoulder.

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 strain

Shoulder strain means that the muscles and/or the tendons in the shoulder have been overstretched to the point of damage and sometimes partial tearing. (A "sprain" means that ligaments have been damaged.)

Because of its wide range of motion, the shoulder is a relatively unstable joint that is vulnerable to injury. A sudden overloading, especially after long periods of overuse, can finally cause some degree of tearing to the muscle fibers and/or the tendons.

Shoulder strains are most often sports injuries, or are caused by strenuous physical labor.

Symptoms include sudden sharp pain followed by swelling, bruising, and ongoing tenderness.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and sometimes ultrasound.

Treatment involves a short period of rest, followed by gradually increasing exercise to regain strength and prevent stiffness and weakness of the muscles and tendons. Physical therapy will be tailored to the individual and some skills, such as for sports, may need to be relearned. Improving posture while sitting, and adjusting techniques for work and sports, can help prevent recurrence of the strain.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: pain in one shoulder, pain in the front of the shoulder, shoulder pain from overuse, shoulder pain from an injury, sports injury

Symptoms that always occur with shoulder strain: pain in one shoulder

Symptoms that never occur with shoulder strain: arm weakness, arm numbness

Urgency: Phone call or in-person visit

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 doctor

Swollen shoulder questionnaire

Use our free symptom checker to find out what's causing your swollen shoulder.

Swollen shoulder symptom checker

Shoulder bruise

A shoulder bruise, or contusion, means that the shoulder has been struck hard enough to damage the muscles without breaking the skin. This leaves a blue or purple mark in the skin that may be very sore.

A shoulder is most often bruised through a sports injury, such as blocking a player in a football game or falling from a horse. Using a rifle or shotgun can bruise the shoulder through the recoil.

A bruise may not seem serious, but it still needs proper care. It is possible for the bruise to mask a deeper injury such as a sprain, strain, or fracture. Complications such as compartment syndrome are possible, where trapped fluids from the damaged muscle tissues build up intense pressure and cause severe damage.

A medical provider can make an accurate diagnosis through physical examination and through imaging such as x-ray or CT scan.

Treatment for a shoulder contusion involves wearing a sling to take some pressure off of the shoulder joints; ice packs; and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for pain and swelling.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: constant shoulder pain, pain in one shoulder, shoulder pain from an injury, shoulder injury, swelling of one shoulder

Symptoms that always occur with shoulder bruise: shoulder pain from an injury, shoulder injury, constant shoulder pain

Urgency: Self-treatment

Swollen shoulder treatments and relief

When to see a doctor for a swollen shoulder

If you experience shoulder swelling or any of these associated symptoms, make an appointment with your physician to get appropriate treatment. Depending on the diagnosis, your physician may suggest:

  • Repositioning: If your swelling is due to a dislocation injury, your physician may first attempt to reposition the upper arm back into the shoulder socket. This is usually done with IV sedation in an emergency department or urgent care setting for acute dislocations.
  • Immobilization (sling): Your physician may use a sling to keep your shoulder from moving.
  • Physical therapy or rehabilitation: Your physician may prescribe stretching exercises or a physical therapy/rehabilitation program to help you restore range of motion, strength, and stability to your shoulder, especially after injury.
  • Rheumatologic medications: There are many types of medications that combat rheumatologic conditions that may be causing your swollen shoulder.

Questions your doctor may ask about swollen shoulder

  • Is your swollen area warm and red?
  • Any fever today or during the last week?
  • What is your body mass?
  • How would you explain the cause of your shoulder pain?

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

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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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