Shoulder Injuries and Disorders

Your shoulder joint is composed of three bones: the clavicle (collarbone), the scapula (shoulder blade), and the humerus (upper arm bone).

Your shoulder joint is composed of three bones: the clavicle (collarbone), the scapula (shoulder blade), and the humerus (upper arm bone). Your shoulders are the most movable joints in your body. They can also be unstable because the ball of the upper arm is larger than the shoulder socket that holds it. To remain in a stable or normal position, the shoulder must be anchored by muscles, tendons, and ligaments.

Because your shoulder can be unstable, it can be easily injured. Common problems include

  • Sprains and strains
  • Dislocations
  • Separations
  • Tendinitis
  • Bursitis
  • Torn rotator cuffs
  • Frozen shoulder
  • Fractures
  • Arthritis

Health care providers diagnose shoulder problems by using your medical history, a physical exam, and imaging tests.

Often, the first treatment for shoulder problems is RICE. This stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. Other treatments include exercise and medicines to reduce pain and swelling. If those don't work, you may need surgery.

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
  • Bursitis, which is inflammation of a fluid-filled sac (bursa) that normally protects the joint and helps it move smoothly
  • 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

Here are some tips for helping shoulder pain get better:

  • Put ice on the shoulder area for 15 minutes, then leave it off for 15 minutes. Do this 3 to 4 times a day for 2 to 3 days. Wrap the ice in cloth. Do not put ice directly on the skin because this can result in frostbite.
  • Rest your shoulder for the next few days.
  • Slowly return to your regular activities. A physical therapist can help you do this safely.
  • Taking ibuprofen or acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) may help reduce inflammation and pain.

Rotator cuff problems can be treated at home also.

  • If you have had shoulder pain before, use ice and ibuprofen after exercising.
  • Learn exercises to stretch and strengthen your rotator cuff tendons and shoulder muscles. A doctor or physical therapist can recommend such exercises.
  • If you are recovering from tendinitis, continue to do range-of-motion exercises to avoid frozen shoulder.
  • Practice good posture to keep your shoulder muscles and tendons in their right positions.