Read below about severe shoulder pain, including causes, treatment options and remedies. Or get a personalized analysis of your severe shoulder pain from our A.I. health assistant. At Buoy, we build tools that help you know what’s wrong right now and how to get the right care.

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Severe Shoulder Pain Symptoms

Most cases of shoulder pain are due to an acute injury and so the cause of the pain is easily identifiable. Even a chronic injury which happens over time due to wear and tear usually has an obvious cause.

However, due to the complexity of the nervous system, it is possible for a condition occurring elsewhere in the body to register as pain in the shoulder. This can happen even when there is nothing wrong in the shoulder at all. When it does occur, it can indicate a serious problem, and so this kind of shoulder pain should be seen by a medical provider as soon as possible.

Characteristics:

  • A deep, aching pain that usually gets worse with any sort of movement of the shoulder.
  • Sharp or grinding pain with movement.
  • A dull, burning pain that may be present even when not moving the arm, or when lying down to sleep.

Duration of symptoms:

  • Acute pain comes on suddenly.
  • Chronic pain has been present for six months or more.

Who is most often affected by severe shoulder pain?

  • Athletes.
  • Wear-and-tear injuries happen most often to people over age 50.
  • Anyone doing physical labor or heavy fitness training.
  • Anyone with osteoporosis, which is a loss of calcium from the bones with subsequent weakening.
  • Anyone who has had shoulder replacement surgery.

Is severe shoulder pain serious?

  • Chronic pain may not seem serious but can certainly interfere with quality of life and should definitely be treated as soon as possible.
  • An acute injury that causes severe shoulder pain should be seen in an emergency room.
  • Shoulder pain that seems to have no apparent cause can be "referred," or caused by something in another part of the body. This can be a serious symptom and must be seen by a medical provider right away. An example is referred pain from angina or a heart attack.

Severe Shoulder Pain Causes Overview

Acute injury:

  • A fracture or crush injury to any part of the shoulder socket, collarbone, or upper arm bone.
  • Dislocation of the ball of the upper arm bone from the shoulder socket.
  • Tearing of the ligaments or cartilage in the shoulder joint.
  • Post-traumatic conditions that cause damage to the joint:

    • Loss of cartilage after an injury, leading to further wear.
    • Loss of adequate blood supply to the joint.
    • Scar tissue forming anywhere within the joint.

Chronic injury:

  • Wearing away of the cartilage in the shoulder from overuse or repetitive strain injury.
  • Pain from bone-on-bone contact.
  • Pain from bone spurs that can result from long-term wear.

Autoimmune illnesses:

These are conditions where the body's own protective immune system turns against itself for no apparent reason. These may have a hereditary and/or a viral component.

  • Inflammation of the membranes surrounding the shoulder joint, causing destruction of the cartilage.
  • Inflammation of the nerves and muscles around the shoulder joint, especially following any injury.

Complications from shoulder replacement surgery:

  • Loosening, wear, or shifting of the replacement hardware.
  • Infection around the hardware.

Referred shoulder pain from other causes:

  • If the shoulder pain occurs in a woman of childbearing age, and is accompanied by severe pain in the abdomen and vaginal bleeding, this may be a life-threatening medical emergency and must be treated immediately.
  • Digestive disorders:

  • Cardiac disorders – angina usually occurs in the chest but may radiate to the neck, left shoulder, left arm or back.

Rare and unusual causes:

  • A tumor of the lung may have shoulder pain as one of the symptoms.

6 Potential Severe Shoulder Pain Causes

Disclaimer: The article does not replace an evaluation by a physician. Information on this page is provided as an information resource only, and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes.

  1. 1.Frozen Shoulder (Adhesive Capsulitis of the Shoulder)

    Adhesive Capsulitis or "Frozen shoulder" is when the shoulder is painful and loses motion because of inflammation.

    1.5 - 3 years, but 90% recover fully without treatment

    Rarity:
    Common
    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
  2. 2.Pinched Nerve in the Neck

    With age, disks separating the cervical vertebrae (which are the bones of your spine in your neck) lose height as well as lose water content, becoming stiffer. The vertebrae move closer together, and nerves that exit between these bones may be pinched, causing pain to travel down the nerve as it passes through the arm. The pain is usually sharp, and some people report a "pins and needles" sensation or even complete numbness.

    Majority of patients get better with time (weeks to months).

    Rarity:
    Common
    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
  3. 3.Rotator Cuff Tendonitis

    Impingement syndrome is a common shoulder condition seen in aging adults. The tendons of rotator cuff muscles, whose action is to rotate the arm such such as during a tennis swing, pass in a narrow space between two bones in the shoulder. When the space becomes too narrow, which can happen as a result of an overuse injury, pain may develop as the tendons rub against the bones.

    Impingement may take weeks to months to settle.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    pain in one shoulder, dull, achy shoulder pain, shoulder pain that gets worse at night, difficulty moving the shoulder, shoulder pain from overuse
    Symptoms that always occur with rotator cuff tendonitis:
    pain in one shoulder
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor

    Severe Shoulder Pain Checker

    Take a quiz to find out why you’re having severe shoulder pain.

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  4. 4.Uterine Fibroids

    Uterine fibroids are noncancerous tumors in the uterus. They are common in women of childbearing age.

    Treatment ranges from medication to surgical removal of the fibroid.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    vaginal bleeding, pelvis pain, abdominal cramps (stomach cramps), painful periods, irregular period
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  5. 5.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.

    3-6 weeks with treatment

    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
  6. 6.Repetitive Strain Injury of the Shoulder ("Swimmer's Shoulder")

    Repetitive strain injury of the shoulder is caused by consistent repetitive use.

    Resolves with rest

    Rarity:
    Uncommon
    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
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment

Severe Shoulder Pain Treatments and Relief

Seek immediate treatment in the emergency room or call 911 if the severe shoulder pain is accompanied by:

  • Abdominal pain and vaginal bleeding in a woman of childbearing age.
  • Acute distress in a person who has an implanted defibrillator. The pain may indicate that the defibrillator is malfunctioning.
  • Pain, redness, and fever in someone who has had a shoulder replacement or other shoulder surgery.
  • One-sided facial symptoms, exhaustion, and weight loss.

Schedule an appointment for:

  • Constant, unrelenting pain in the shoulder joint.
  • Inability to move the arm due to pain.
  • Discussion of physical therapy for chronic pain.

Severe shoulder pain remedies that you can try at home, while waiting for your appointment:

  • Hot or cold packs to the painful area, depending on which seems most helpful.
  • Taking over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Severe Shoulder Pain

  • Q.How would you explain the cause of your shoulder pain?
  • Q.Can you fully move your shoulders around?
  • Q.Is the shoulder pain affecting:
  • Q.About your [shoulder], do you notice any of the following?

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions, try our severe shoulder pain symptom checker to find out more.

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Severe Shoulder Pain Symptom Checker Statistics

  • People who have experienced severe shoulder pain have also experienced:

    • 9% Pain in One Shoulder
    • 5% Pain in the Back of the Neck
    • 4% Pain in One Arm
  • People who have experienced severe shoulder pain had symptoms persist for:

    • 36% Over a Month
    • 23% Less Than a Week
    • 19% Less Than a Day
  • People who have experienced severe shoulder pain were most often matched with:

    • 38% Rotator Cuff Tendonitis
    • 21% Frozen Shoulder (Adhesive Capsulitis of the Shoulder)
    • 14% Pinched Nerve in the Neck
  • Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).

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