Read below about shoulder pain, including causes, treatment options and remedies. Or get a personalized analysis of your 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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Shoulder Pain Symptoms

You shoulder a lot of responsibility in your life, so what do you do the pain in your shoulder limits your ability to move?

Our shoulders have a tremendous range of motion. They are what allows us to carry a backpack, lift a child, reach for something on a high shelf, put on a coat, rake leaves, push ourselves up and out of bed and drive a car – really anything that requires lifting, pushing or pulling. Ever if you've never had shoulder pain symptoms, you can see how it might impact your daily life.

When you have shoulder pain symptoms, you may also:

  • be unable to lift your arm overhead
  • be unable to move your arm away from your body
  • be unable to rotate your arm
  • have stiffness in your arm
  • lose flexibility in your shoulder
  • notice weakness in your arm
  • lose function of your arm
  • experience muscle spasms
  • notice swelling or bruising

The shoulder is made up of several muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones and nerves. Overuse, or an injury to anyone of those structures, can cause shoulder pain symptoms. Shoulder pain is most often caused by a traumatic injury, such as a car accident, a fall, or from overuse in sports. Let's look at some more specific causes of shoulder pain.

Shoulder Pain Causes Overview

Muscle injury:

  • Injury to any of the four muscles of the shoulder can cause shoulder pain. The supraspinatus (which helps to lift your arm) is the shoulder muscle most easily and most often injured. Inflammation or tears in this muscle are not uncommon in baseball pitchers, who repetitively and forcefully throw baseballs.

Tendon injury:

  • Tendon inflammation, tears and rupture can also cause shoulder pain symptoms. Each of the four rotator cuff muscles are attached to bone by tendons. The biceps muscle is attached to the upper arm bone by tendons. A partial or complete tear of any of these tendons is not uncommon after an injury such as a fall or a quick and forceful movement of your arm.

  • Tendonitis (inflamed or swollen tendon) is most common in people who frequently or repetitively work with their arms over their heads. Swimmers, weightlifters and gymnasts often experience tendonitis as a result of overuse.

Brachial plexus (nerve) injury:

  • The brachial plexus is a network of nerves in the shoulder. In addition to pain, injury to the brachial plexus may cause numbness, loss of feeling, burning, stinging and weakness in the shoulder and arm. Because the brachial plexus is well protected in the shoulder, it is not often injured. Injury – which can have permanent consequences – can be caused by compression or prolonged traction.

A.I. Health Assistant Causes for Shoulder Pain

The list below shows results from the use of our A.I. Health Assistant by Buoy users who experienced 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.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
  3. 3.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
  4. 4.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
  5. 5.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

    Shoulder Pain Checker

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  6. 6.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
  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.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
  9. 9.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
  10. 10.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

Shoulder Pain Treatments and Relief

Seek emergency medical care if you have shoulder pain symptoms and:

  • chest pain
  • persistent pain that you cannot manage at home with over-the-counter medications
  • there is any possibility you have broken your collar bone
  • there is any possibility you have dislocated your shoulder
  • have also had a significant head, neck, or stomach injury

For non-emergency conditions, the most important thing to do after any muscle or tendon injury is rest.

  • Rest your shoulder by keeping your arm down, in front of you, and close to your body. Do not use a sling unless advised by a physician. A sling can limit the mobility of your arm and can cause frozen shoulder.
  • Ice your shoulder for 15 minutes every few hours to reduce inflammation and pain.
  • NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen or naproxen) will reduce both pain and inflammation.
  • Once the inflammation subsides, you can do progressive shoulder exercises and/or physical therapy to aid in safe recovery. Stretching, range of motion exercises, heat and massage can also be helpful at this stage of recovery.

Significant tears or ruptures might require surgery. The need for surgery depends on the seriousness of the injury. Shoulder surgery is not to be taken lightly. Full recovery from the surgery can take up to six months.

Of course, your best bet is to try to prevent shoulder injuries in the first place by:

  • maintaining good posture
  • using proper body mechanics when lifting, reaching backwards, and performing repetitive movements
  • keeping the shoulder and surrounding muscles (especially in your chest and back) strong and flexible with regular exercise

FAQs About Shoulder Pain

Here are some frequently asked questions about shoulder pain.

What causes shoulder pain?

Shoulder pain is most commonly caused by trauma to the shoulder, either acute or repetitive. Many structures within the shoulder can be damaged and will cause pain in different areas with different movements. There is also a nerve that sends pain signals from both the heart and the shoulder. Because of this nerve, shoulder pain can be "referred pain" from a disease of the heart.

What causes shoulder joint pain?

Shoulder joint pain is most commonly caused by damage to the structures of the shoulder. For example, damage to a rotator cuff can cause shoulder joint pain when the shoulder is lifted particularly above the horizontal.

How to tell if you tore your rotator cuff?

If you suspect a rotator cuff injury, you should visit a health professional to seek evaluation. Rotator cuff injuries are commonly asymptomatic — they are not accompanied by any pain or loss of function immediately — but you may experience pain along the outside upper-arm and weakness in lifting your arm overhead.

What causes severe shoulder pain?

Severe shoulder pain can be caused by stretching of the joint capsule by swelling or inflammation, or a ligament tear following severe trauma. If it is accompanied by loss of functionality or prolonged pain, you should seek urgent care immediately.

Can shoulder pain cause neck pain?

Shoulder pain does not cause neck pain commonly, but shoulder pain is commonly accompanied by neck pain. This means that while you may have shoulder pain by itself, an injury or action that causes shoulder pain may also injure or strain a muscle within the group of muscles that support the neck. Overhead lifting, for example, engages the shoulder, but without proper stability can cause pain in both the shoulder and the neck.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About 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 shoulder pain symptom checker to find out more.

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Shoulder Pain Symptom Checker Statistics

  • People who have experienced shoulder pain have also experienced:

    • 12% Pain in the Upper Arm
    • 6% Forearm Pain
    • 5% Pain in One Shoulder
  • People who have experienced shoulder pain had symptoms persist for:

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

    • 42% Rotator Cuff Tendonitis
    • 42% Frozen Shoulder (Adhesive Capsulitis of the Shoulder)
    • 14% Repetitive Strain Injury of the Shoulder ("Swimmer's Shoulder")
  • 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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