December 30, 2020 7 min read

Experiencing shoulder pain? You’re not alone. Shoulder pain affects an estimated 27 million people each year, making it one of the most common ailments the average American encounters. Pain in your shoulder can make normal activities like brushing your hair or opening a car door feel excruciating. What’s more frustrating is not knowing why the pain began or when or if it will end.


You’re left scratching your head, wondering “why does my shoulder hurt?”, and without a professional diagnosis for your shoulder pain, your answer may be difficult to confirm. However, a bit of self-troubleshooting and evaluation can help you figure out the cause. In this post, we’ll cover common shoulder pain causes and provide a few helpful tips on how to address and alleviate the symptoms you’re experiencing.

Understanding the Shoulder

The human shoulder is made up of three bones: the humerus, scapula, and clavicle (the upper arm bone, the shoulder blade, and the collar bone). The head of the humorous rests inside a rounded socket in the scapula called the glenoid. It is thanks to a hard-working combination of muscles and tendons called the rotator cuff that keep the bones perfectly centered in the glenoid. The rotator cuff is what allows us to move our arms in a circular motion.


Shoulder pain can arise when any number of these anatomical shoulder parts are injured, inflamed, or affected by a disease or condition. As many as 67% of people experience shoulder pain at one point in life.

 

shoulder pain statistics infographic

 

Common Shoulder Pain Causes

Maybe you fell and hit your shoulder, maybe you went a little too hard in the gym, or maybe it started hurting for no reason at all— whatever reasoning you may have behind why your shoulder is in pain, the cause may be one of or a number of the following eight common shoulder pain causes. 


Tendon Inflammation

Tendon inflammation in the shoulder, also known as tendinitis, occurs when a tendon (a cord that connects muscle to bone) is overused or injured. Tendinitis is extremely common among athletes and those who partake in rigorous or frequent physical activity. The most commonly affected tendons in the shoulder are the four rotator cuff tendons and one of the biceps tendons. The rotator cuff helps provide shoulder motion and stability.


Generally, tendinitis is one of two types:

  1. Acute:Short-term tendinitis that can be treated with a few days of rest and physical therapy
  2. Chronic: Ongoing tendinitis that is constant due to the tendons’ inability to repair themselves

Tendon Tear

When you tear your shoulder tendon, the fibrous tissue that connects the muscle to bone is ruptured. Shoulder tendons can tear as a result of an acute injury, like lifting something too heavy too quickly, or as a result of degenerative changes that may come with advancing age or long-term overuse. Tears can be partial or fully separate the tendon from the bone.


Impingement

Shoulder impingement occurs when the top of the shoulder blade, called the acromion, applies pressure on the underlying soft tissues when the arm is lifted and positioned away from the body. When the arm is lifted into this position, the acromion creates an uncomfortable friction on the rotator cuff tendons and bursa. 


Frequent overhead activity can put you at higher risk of experiencing shoulder impingement— activities like painting, weightlifting, swimming, and tennis are all high-risk overhead exercises.


Instability

Shoulder instability occurs when the head of the humerus is forced out of the shoulder socket and typically occurs as a result of overuse or sudden injury, like a car crash for example. 


Shoulder instability usually occurs when the lining of the shoulder joint, ligaments, or labrum become stretched, torn or completely detached, effectively allowing the ball of the shoulder joint, scientifically known as the humeral head, to migrate partially or completely out of the socket.


Arthritis

There are many different types of arthritis, however the most common type of arthritis that affects the shoulder is osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis is also referred to as "wear and tear" arthritis as it tends to develop with advancing age. 


Osteoarthritis affects more than 3 million Americans every year, primarily affecting age groups over 60. Typically symptoms such as swelling, pain, and stiffness in the shoulder serve as early signs, but osteoarthritis generally develops slowly, though the pain may worsen over time.


Osteoarthritis, may be related to sports or work injuries or chronic wear and tear. Other types of arthritis can be related to rotator cuff tears, infection, or an inflammation of the joint lining.


Fracture

A fractured shoulder indicates one or more of the shoulder bones are broken or cracked. Fractures typically occur as a result of high-force impact or extreme physical stress. Falls, accidents, or constant, ongoing pressure are the leading causes behind shoulder fractures. Common symptoms include sharp or dull, consistent pain, swelling, bruising, and inability to put weight or pressure on the shoulder.


There are a range of fracture types which means there is no universal solution for treating a broken bone. In order to get an accurate diagnosis for your shoulder pain, you’ll need to visit a doctor for a professional evaluation.


Dislocation

A shoulder dislocation implies that the humerus popped out of the shoulder socket. Because the shoulder moves in several directions, it can dislocate forward, backward or downward. The vast majority of shoulder dislocations occur through the front of the shoulder, also known as anterior dislocations. Dislocations can be partial or full, but both carry symptoms of severe shoulder pain, swelling, bruising, numbness, muscle spasms, and limited range of motion.


Frozen Shoulder

Frozen shoulder, scientifically recognized as adhesive capsulitis, is a common disorder that affects those with diabetes and those who have kept their arm and shoulder immobilized for a long period of time. This condition occurs when the tissues in the shoulder thicken and tighten and develop scar tissue over time. This ultimately leads to a loss in space to rotate the shoulder naturally and comfortably.


Frozen shoulder is characterized by joint pain, stiffness, and reduced range of motion in the shoulder. Symptoms typically worsen over time if untreated, but can begin to resolve with proper treatment, remobilization, and strengthening.

 

frozen shoulder infographic

A shocking 5 - 20% of the population will experience a frozen shoulder at some point in their lives. Those at increased risk include: 

  • Age 40+
  • History of diabetes 
  • Thyroid problems 
  • Heart conditions 
  • Parkinson's disease

 

Relieving Shoulder Pain: 4 Tips to Mitigate the Ache

man applying ice to shoulder

 

With a clearer understanding of the most common types of shoulder pain causes, you may have a better idea of what’s going on with your shoulder. Using the following four tips, you can begin to explore solutions to source some much needed shoulder pain relief and whip your shoulder back into fighting shape.

Tip #1: Ice and Rest 

Where there is pain and inflammation, ice and rest is always best. In the case of the shoulder, applying a cold compress can help reduce swelling and numb sharp pain. A frozen ice pack, bag of peas, or ice cubes can suffice as compresses— wrap the compress in a soft towel, and apply for 20 minutes. Once complete, be sure to rest your shoulder and avoid any activity that could put any strain on your muscles and tendons. The longer you’re able to rest, the more efficiently your body can heal.

 

Tip #2: Alter Sleep Posture

One of the easiest ways to alleviate pain radiating from an ailing shoulder is by altering your sleep position. If you’re a side sleeper, consider sleeping on the opposite side for some immediate shoulder pain relief. 


If you have a hard time committing to any other sleeping position than your usual side, consider outfitting your bedding with a shoulder relief pillow specially designed to eliminate pressure on the shoulder by encouraging a neutral arm position. Shoulder Relief Systems are a great investment for those suffering from chronic shoulder pain, too.


Alternatively, sleeping on your back places your spine in a neutral position and reduces pressure on both shoulders. If you’re a side sleeper, consider adding a shoulder pillow into the mix to provide the extra support you need to alleviate some shoulder pain.

 

Tip #3: Medication 

Over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen and aspirin can help reduce inflammation and pain in your affected shoulder. Though temporary, pain relief from these medicines can help ease any discomfort and help you get better sleep at night as you recover. It’s important to note that taking pain medications can cause side effects such as stomach upset and heartburn with long-term use, so it’s best to consult a doctor if you are taking them for more than four weeks. 


For muscle soreness, you can also try topical pain-relief gels and creams which can deliver a soothing, yet numbing sensation to your affected areas. 

 

Tip #4: Physical Therapy 

For mild or severe shoulder injuries, physical therapy may be the optimal avenue to explore to restore your aching shoulder back to health and leveled comfort. The ultimate goal of physical therapy is to improve the functioning, flexibility, and comfortability of the injured shoulder. Physical therapists often use the following four techniques to encourage recovery.

  • Modalities: Heat and ice treatments
  • Hands-on therapy: Manual massaging and mobility exercises
  • Strengthening: Techniques focused on rebuilding strength and increasing range of motion
  • Electrical stimulation: Mild electrical pulsations used to repair injured muscles

 

When to See a Doctor

Shoulder pain that interferes with your everyday life, limits your mobility, or persists after a few weeks should be professionally evaluated by a doctor. See your doctor if you are experiencing any of the following:

  • Consistent pain: Especially pain that does not get better with rest and medication
  • Stiffness
  • Weakness
  • Dislocation


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