What Is Shoulder Pain?

If you suffer from pain in your shoulders, upper back, or neck, they could all be related. Diagnosing the cause of your shoulder pain is your first step towards effective treatment. Here’s what you need to know.

This type of pain is characterized by soreness and discomfort within the area of your shoulder joint. Many people also experience neck pain as well. Your shoulder joint includes the:

  • Clavicle (i.e., collarbone)
  • Scapula (i.e., shoulder blade)
  • Upper arm bones (i.e., humerus)

The shoulder joint itself is a ball and socket joint that is one of the more mobile joints within the body. It joins the scapula at the head of the humerus. Interestingly, there is very little interface between these two bones, which likely accounts for its high degree of mobility. The shoulder joint is also comprised of four groups of muscles and tendons whose function is to stabilize the joint.

Your shoulder joint is in constant motion. As such, it can be the source of pain and discomfort for many adults. Indeed, prevalence rates for for this type of pain are 4.7 to 46.7% for 1-year prevalence, and 6.7 to 66.7% for lifetime prevalence.

Shoulder Pain | PainDoctor.com

Shoulder Pain Symptoms

The most commonly reported shoulder pain symptoms include:

  • Aching pain
  • Swelling
  • Redness
  • Joint tenderness
  • Weakness
  • Limited mobility
  • Sensation of warmth around the joint
  • Sensitivity to temperature or touch

Causes Of Shoulder Pain

There is a wide range of causes that underlie an episode of pain in the shoulder. In most instances, the symptoms of pain and discomfort are an indication of:

  • A possible hidden injury
  • Inflammation
  • Other damage to the muscles, connective tissue, or musculoskeletal tissue

Common causes of pain in the shoulder include:

  • Rotator cuff tendinitis
  • Injury or fracture
  • Dislocated joint
  • Repetitive stress injuries
  • Arthritis, especially osteoarthritis
  • Pinched nerve
  • Associated neck pain, or “schneck pain”
  • Adhesive capsulitis, or frozen shoulder
  • Infection or tumors, in rare cases

Rotator cuff tendinitis

One of the most common conditions that causes pain is rotator cuff tendinitis. This condition occurs when the tendons of the rotator cuff become irritated or inflamed, generally as the result of overuse, strain, or repetitive overhead movements (e.g., washing windows or throwing).

Injuries and instability

Fractured bones or a dislocated joint can also result in redness, swelling, and high degrees of pain in the shoulder area. These typically occur as the result of a fall, sports injury, or even injury sustained during a motor vehicle accident.

Pain also can be reported more frequently among workers of specific types of jobs. For instance, construction workers, welders, or professional athletes are constantly using their shoulder joint, in particular, for extreme exertion or weight lifting.  Thus, this exertion and overuse may lead to chronic symptoms of pain and discomfort.

Shoulder instability can also be a source of great degrees of pain. This condition occurs when the shoulder joint is dislocated from an injury or overuse. This type of injury places the connective tissue and muscles of the joint at risk for injury as well. Indeed, dislocations that occur frequently can further damage the surrounding structures, making it more likely to continue to occur. Moreover, this may lead to arthritis or other tissue damage and symptoms of chronic pain.


Another highly common source of pain is arthritis, specifically osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis typically develops in the shoulder and slowly progresses as a person ages. This deterioration is believed to be the result of typical wear and tear from daily use; however, a portion of patients suffer from osteoarthritis as the result of infection and inflammation.

Pinched nerve

Some individuals may suffer from severe symptoms of painful shoulders as a result of a pinched nerve within the shoulder. This can occur as the consequence of nerve impingement from the nearby muscles or tendons. Compression placed on the nerve can cause damage to the nerve’s ability to transmit information. This can lead to:

  • Numbing sensations
  • Weakness
  • Restricted mobility in the shoulder joint

This is most often the case with pain that originates in the shoulder, due to a pinched nerve in the cervical spine. As Spine-Health explains: “If a cervical nerve root becomes compressed or irritated in the neck, it can cause pain and symptoms that radiate along the path of the nerve into the shoulder, arm and/or hand. This is medically termed cervical radiculopathy.”

Adhesive capsulitis

Also known as adhesive capsulitis, frozen shoulder is characterized by the loss of mobility owing to a thickening of the various connective tissue structures surrounding the joint of the shoulder. Individuals with diabetes, heart disease, and other thyroid conditions are believed to be more at risk for developing symptoms of frozen shoulder. Further, individuals whose shoulder has been immobilized for a long period of time are also at an increased risk. You can learn more about frozen shoulder here.

Shoulder Pain Diagnosis

As with many other pain conditions, your doctor will recommend different treatments based on the cause of your pain. This follows their diagnosis. If you’re suffering from pain that greatly effects your overall quality of life, it’s wise to talk to a pain specialist for a diagnosis and treatment options. Other healthcare practitioners that can help include physical therapists, chiropractors, your general physician, or an orthopaedic surgeon in extreme cases.

To start, your shoulder pain doctor will speak with you about your current episode of pain, including severity, description, and course. Next, your doctor will:

  • Conduct a physical examination
  • Review all of your previous and available medical documents
  • Order imaging tests, such as X-rays, MRI, ultrasound, or CT scans

These imaging tests are typically used to assist with determining the degree of severity of your condition. They can also help pinpoint conditions stemming from issues in the cervical spine. Once your doctor finds the appropriate diagnosis, your treatment planning can begin.