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.

A.I. Health Assistant Causes for Severe Shoulder Pain

The list below shows results from the use of our A.I. Health Assistant by Buoy users who experienced severe shoulder pain. This list does not constitute medical advice.

  1. 1.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
  2. 2.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
  3. 3.Shoulder Arthritis

    Arthritis is inflammation of one or more of the joints. Pain, swelling, and stiffness are the primary symptoms of arthritis. Any joint in the body may be affected by the disease, including the shoulder joint.

    Shoulder arthritis is a chronic problem once it develops.

    Rarity:
    Uncommon
    Top Symptoms:
    spontaneous shoulder pain, shoulder pain that gets worse at night, difficulty moving the shoulder, swollen shoulder
    Symptoms that always occur with shoulder arthritis:
    spontaneous shoulder pain
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  4. 4.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
  5. 5.Brachial Plexopathy (Shoulder Nerve Issue)

    The brachial plexus is a complex nerve network located in the upper chest and shoulder region. Nerves can be explained as 'electric wires' of the body, passing through signals from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles. The brachial plexus is a bundle of nerves that lies deep to the collar bone, which supplies the shoulder, arm, forearm, and hand. When this bundle of nerves is (partially) damaged, one speaks of a 'plexopathy'. Several causes of damage can be injury or forceful trauma, inflammation or infection. A commonly known cause is sports injury in contact sports like football and rugby. Symptoms can include pain, burning, numbness and weakness in the shoulder and arm on one side, sometimes shooting through the arm to the hand. An acute (sports) injury that causes this condition is often called 'burners' or 'stingers' because of the burning and stinging type of pain. When the cause is inflammation of the nerves, it is often called the Parsonage-Turner syndrome.

    The severity of this condition is highly variable, and dependent on the amount of damage caused to the nerves. Brachial plexus injury following surgery usually has a good prognosis. Recovery times range from 2 weeks to 2 years.

    Rarity:
    Uncommon
    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

    Severe Shoulder Pain Checker

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  6. 6.Non - Specific Shoulder Pain

    The shoulder is made up of many ligaments and several bones. Shoulder pain is often not identifiable because of how complicated a joint it is.

    1-2 weeks

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    shoulder pain
    Symptoms that always occur with non-specific shoulder pain:
    shoulder pain
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  7. 7.Biceps Tendonitis

    The biceps is the muscle in the front of the upper arm. Its main action is to flex the arm. The beginning of the muscle is a tendon that passes in front of the shoulder. Problems with the tendon can arise due to impingement (where the tendon gets compressed by surrounding structures) or inflammation due to overuse of the shoulder. People with this condition experience a deep, throbbing ache in the front of the shoulder.

    Recover on its own within weeks to months.

    Rarity:
    Rare
    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 tendonitis:
    pain in the front of the shoulder
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  8. 8.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.

    Pain goes away in 3 weeks in most cases (6-12 weeks for more severe injuries)

    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
  9. 9.Biceps Tendon Rupture

    The biceps is the muscle in the front of the upper arm. Its main action is to flex the arm. The biceps muscle collects in a tendon that inserts into the radius (one of the bones of the forearm). Sometimes, if lifting something heavy or rapidly putting weight on the arm, the biceps tendon may pull away from the bone. Biceps tendon ruptures are classified as either partial or complete ruptures, depending on if the tendon pulled away only somewhat, or completely.

    Full recovery within weeks to months after surgery, with no lasting deficits.

    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
  10. 10.Shoulder Strain

    Shoulder strain, also known as a muscle pull, is a common occurrence attributed to a damaged muscle and often is the result of heavy lifting or sports.

    With proper medical attention, this condition should fully resolve.

    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

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.Where exactly is your shoulder pain?
  • Q.Have you ever been diagnosed with diabetes?

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:

    • 8% 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:

    • 33% Rotator Cuff Tendonitis
    • 33% Frozen Shoulder (Adhesive Capsulitis of the Shoulder)
    • 33% Shoulder Arthritis
  • 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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