The shoulder is the most movable joint in the human body. A group of 4 muscles and their tendons, called the rotator cuff, give the shoulder its wide range of motion.
Swelling, damage, or bone changes around the rotator cuff can cause shoulder pain. You may have pain when lifting the arm above your head or moving it forward or behind your back.
The most common cause of shoulder pain occurs when rotator cuff tendons become trapped under the bony area in the shoulder. The tendons become inflamed or damaged. This condition is called rotator cuff tendinitis or bursitis.
Shoulder pain may also be caused by:
- Arthritis in the shoulder joint
- Bone spurs in the shoulder area
- Broken shoulder bone
- Dislocation of the shoulder
- Shoulder separation
- Frozen shoulder, which occurs when the muscles, tendons, and ligaments inside the shoulder become stiff, making movement difficult and painful
- Overuse or injury of nearby tendons, such as the bicep muscles of the arms
- Tears of the rotator cuff tendons
Sometimes, shoulder pain may be due to a problem in another area of the body, such as the neck or lungs. This is called referred pain. There is usually no pain when moving the shoulder.
Sudden shoulder pain can sometimes be a sign of a heart attack. Call 911 if you have sudden pressure or crushing pain in your shoulder, especially if the pain runs from your chest to the left jaw, arm or neck, or occurs with shortness of breath, dizziness, or sweating.
Go to the hospital emergency room if you have just had a severe injury and your shoulder is very painful, swollen, bruised, or bleeding.
Call your health care provider if you have:
- Shoulder pain with a fever, swelling, or redness
- Problems moving the shoulder
- Pain for more than 2 to 4 weeks, even after home treatment
- Swelling of the shoulder
- Red or blue color of the skin of the shoulder area
Your provider will perform a physical exam and closely look at your shoulder. You will be asked questions to help the provider understand your shoulder problem.
Blood or imaging tests may be ordered to help diagnose the problem.
Your provider may recommend treatment for shoulder pain including:
- Injection of an anti-inflammatory medicine
- Physical therapy
- Surgery if all other treatments do not work
If you have a rotator cuff problem, your provider will likely suggest self-care measures and exercises.