Shoulder Pain Symptoms

By Ashley Henshaw. May 7th 2016

People of any age and activity level may experience shoulder pain at one point or another. This is partly due to the fact that the shoulder is the most mobile joint in the body, so it is used for a wide variety of tasks and activities. While many cases of shoulder pain are relatively harmless, others are an indicator of a more serious condition. It’s important to recognize the signs and symptoms of various types of shoulder pain and know how to treat it.


Shoulder pain is defined as any type of pain that occurs in or around the shoulder. The pain may originate is any number of areas in the shoulder, such as the ligaments, the muscles, the tendons or the joint itself. Usually, shoulder pain is more intense when the arm or shoulder is in movement or being used for a task or activity.


There are two main types of shoulder pain. The first is shoulder pain that worsens when you move your arm or shoulder, which applies to most cases of the condition. However, there is also “referred” shoulder pain, which occurs when the pain doesn’t worsen as the arm or shoulder is moved. This is usually caused by an underlying condition, such as heart disease or gallbladder disease.

Shoulder pain may also vary depending on the cause of the pain. For example, a broken shoulder bone may feel very different from arthritis of the shoulder joint.


Shoulder pain comes in many forms. The pain may be a shooting pain or an aching pain, for example. In addition, shoulder pain may be accompanied by a number of other symptoms depending on the cause of the condition. Possible symptoms which may be associated with shoulder pain include:

  • Swelling around the shoulder or upper arm
  • Stiffness in the shoulder joint
  • Limited range of motion in the arm and shoulder
  • Bruising in the area, especially when the pain stems from a contact injury

Causes And Risk Factors

There are numerous potential causes of shoulder pain. Some of the more common causes are:

  • Arthritis in the shoulder joint
  • Overuse or injury to the muscles or tendons in the shoulder or upper arm
  • Dislocation of the shoulder
  • Separated shoulder
  • Contact injury to the shoulder
  • Sprain or strain of the shoulder, upper back or upper arm
  • Torn cartilage in the shoulder
  • Tendon rupture in the shoulder
  • Rotator cuff injury
  • Broken shoulder bone
  • Broken arm
  • Bursitis (inflammation of the fluid-filled sac which protects the shoulder joint)
  • Frozen shoulder (when the muscles, tendons and ligaments in the shoulder become stiff)
  • Tendinitis of the shoulder
  • Infection
  • Shingles
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Spinal cord injury
  • Heart attack
  • Cancer
  • Gallbladder disease
  • Ectopic pregnancy

Being involved in athletics, weightlifting or other forms of exercise can be a risk factor since it increases the chances of an injury to the shoulder or overuse of tendons and muscles. In addition, age may be a risk factor since it increases the risk of some potential causes of shoulder pain, such as arthritis, cancer and heart attack.


To prevent shoulder pain, it’s good to have a regular exercise routine which strengthens the shoulder area. This will help prevent injury as long as you don’t overuse the muscles and tendons in that part of the body. For some, working with a personal trainer can help them find good exercises to strengthen their shoulders without putting unnecessary stress on the area.


Most cases of shoulder pain are minor and can be effectively treated with a variety of home remedies. For minor shoulder pain that occurs infrequently, try the following home care techniques:

  • Rest the affected shoulder as much as possible for a few days.
  • Ice your shoulder for 15 minutes at a time, taking a 15-minute break in between icing. Do this 3-4 times a day for 2-3 days to relieve pain and inflammation. Make sure to wrap the ice in a cloth – do not apply the ice directly to the skin.
  • Take acetaminophen or ibuprofen to reduce pain and inflammation.
  • Return to regular activities slowly.

There are a few instances where shoulder pain may be the result of a very serious condition which requires immediate medical attention. Seek emergency medical attention if your shoulder pain is accompanied by any of the following symptoms:

  • Intense pain
  • Sudden swelling
  • Inability to use the joint
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Shortness of breath
  • Bleeding as the result of an injury
  • The joint appearing deformed
  • Exposed bone or tendon

For serious or chronic shoulder pain, see a doctor to determine the best treatment. You may need physical therapy or surgery to treat more serious cases of shoulder pain. In addition, shoulder pain caused by a disease or infection may need treatment for the underlying condition. Watch for redness, swelling or tenderness and warmth around the joint, all of which may signal that you need to see a doctor for proper treatment.


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