Shoulder pain

Shoulder pain is a common problem with a number of potential different causes, for example, osteoarthritis or tendon problems. Occasionally it can be referred from other parts of the body such as the neck.

Pains affecting the shoulder region can be more persistent than pains in some other areas, with up to half of people still having symptoms after 18 months. If the pain is particularly severe, it is important to get a correct diagnosis and start treatment at an early stage to speed recovery.

How can I help myself?

Despite the fact that there are several possible causes, shoulder pain will often resolve with sensible self- management advice

  • Avoidance of cause – If you have been doing things repetitively, avoiding the activity may enable inflamed tissues to heal reducing pain.
  • Painkillers – simple over the counter painkillers such as paracetamol or anti-inflammatory gels may help (check with pharmacist that suitable in your case)
  • Exercises – It is usually better to keep the shoulder moving to avoid muscle weakness which may aggravate the problem. Visit the Arthritis Research UK website for specific exercises for shoulder pain. Avoid doing this if there is significant pain.
  • Ice – can be helpful for reducing acute pain. Take care to avoid an ice burn by always wrapping the ice in a damp cloth and avoid prolonged application.
Common causes of shoulder pain
  • There are a number of specific causes of shoulder pain, which include:
    • Frozen shoulder (Capsulitis) is a painful condition causing progressive pain and stiffness in the shoulder. It usually affects people between the ages of 40-60.
    • Subacromial Pain Syndrome – the rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that surround the shoulder joint and help to keep it stable. Pain is felt in the upper,outer arm, especially with overhead movements.
    • Shoulder instability – This may arise where the shoulder is unstable, maybe following an injury, such as a dislocation. Some individuals may have an unusually large range of movement (hypermobility) making them more vulnerable to injury. It requires proper medical or physiotherapy assessment
    • Acromioclavicular joint disorders –This is the joint at the top of the shoulder. Pain is ‘localised’ at the outer part of the clavicle (collar bone). Pain is worse on overhead activities
    • Shoulder osteoarthritis will result in gradually increasing restriction of movements of the shoulder joint. Similar to frozen shoulder However it is commoner over the age of 60.There may be pain and a grating feeling on movement.
    • Broken (fractured) bone, such as a fracture of the humerus (upper arm bone) or broken collarbone may arise from a fall and will need a visit to A&E.
    • Referred pain – In some cases, pain in the shoulder isn’t caused by a problem in the shoulder joint, but by a problem in another area, such as the neck or chest. If you are unsure of the cause you should see a clinician.
When should I see my doctor?
  • You should see your GP if your pain is the result of an injury, is particularly bad, or there is no sign of improvement after a couple of weeks.

    On occasions shoulder pain can also be referred from the lungs or even gall bladder. If you feel unwell or have symptoms unrelated to movement of the shoulder such as pain on breathing, shortness of breath or vomiting you need to speak to a clinician.