When you are living with shoulder pain, you quickly start to realize just how often you use that important joint. That’s why it’s so important to understand the causes of shoulder pain – so you can receive a proper diagnosis and start the road to recovery.
With so many potential causes of shoulder pain, it can be very difficult to self-diagnose. The shoulder is a complex joint, and if one of the many pieces has an issue, it can cause a domino effect.
To prevent your pain and symptoms from worsening, it’s a good idea to learn what can cause shoulder pain, so you can have an informed conversation with your doctor.
In this article, we will explain the most common causes of shoulder pain and their symptoms, as well as what you can do about them. But before we dive into the causes of shoulder pain, let’s examine the shoulder joint itself so you can understand its inner workings.
The anatomy of the shoulder joint
Your shoulder joint is made up of three bones: the humerus (your upper arm bone), the scapula (your shoulder blade), and the clavicle (your collarbone).
Your humerus is topped by a round ball that fits into a socket in your scapula. This connection is padded by a thin layer of cartilage known as the labrum.
A group of muscles and tendons hold your humerus in the correct place within your shoulder socket. These are collectively known as your “rotator cuff.” Your biceps muscles, pecs, and deltoids also connect to your shoulder joint.
With so many intricate pieces, many things can go wrong with your shoulder joint. So, what are the causes of shoulder pain? Let’s take a look.
What can cause shoulder pain?
There are a lot of things that can cause shoulder pain – from a traumatic injury, to structural imbalances, to wear and tear with age. In order to understand what the cause of shoulder pain is in your particular case, it’s important to visit your doctor for a diagnosis.
A medical professional knows exactly what can cause shoulder pain, and can listen to your symptoms and history to determine the culprit of your issues.
The cause of shoulder pain can usually be narrowed down to one of four categories:
- Fractures/broken bones
- Tendon inflammation/tears
While we will explain the common causes of shoulder pain, we are not attempting to diagnose you in any way. You can simply use this blog as a jumping-off point for having a conversation with your doctor – and to help you feel more informed about what is going on with your joint.
Let’s take a look at the most common causes of shoulder pain, so you can form a better understanding of what might be ailing you.
11 common causes of shoulder pain
Here are the most common causes of shoulder pain:
First on our list is osteoarthritis, which many people simply refer to as “arthritis.” Osteoarthritis is one of the most common causes of shoulder pain, and occurs when your shoulder cartilage breaks down and causes your bones to grind together.
Symptoms of osteoarthritis include swelling, pain, and stiffness. Usually, osteoarthritis flares up during middle age, and develops slowly over time. That’s because our body has a harder time repairing cartilage as we get older.
Why is cartilage slow to heal as we age? Well, it’s avascular, which means there aren’t any blood vessels to move healing nutrients around.
On top of that, our cartilage needs collagen to heal, and our natural collagen production slows as we get older, making it more difficult for your body to repair itself.
That's why the best diet for arthritis contains lots of collagen-rich foods.
Bursitis is another one of the causes of shoulder pain. It happens when your bursae become inflamed and irritated. Bursae are small, fluid-filled sacs that act as cushions in your shoulder joint.
Bursitis usually occurs with overuse of your joint, but can happen in conjunction with rotator cuff tendonitis. You may experience a burning, aching pain in your joint if you have bursitis.
3. Torn tendons
Another one of the most common causes of shoulder pain is torn tendons. Tendon tears usually occur from acute injuries, but can also happen from overuse, especially if you have a collagen deficiency that makes your tendons weaker.
Tendon tears may be partial or full, and you may experience deep pain and instability in your joint. If you think you have a tendon tear, it’s important to visit the doctor as soon as possible to prevent your injury from worsening.
Shoulder fractures involve breaks in your shoulder bones (the clavicle, humerus, or scapula). Elderly patients often experience fractures from falls, but they can be caused by contact sports or car accidents as well.
If you have a shoulder fracture, you will probably experience severe pain, swelling, and bruising. You should visit the doctor immediately.
5. Rheumatoid arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis is another type of arthritis that can affect your shoulder joint. Unlike osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder. This chronic inflammatory disorder can affect multiple joints at once, and even your organs, skin, and blood vessels.
If you suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, your immune system will mistakenly attack your own body tissues. This causes painful swelling, bone erosion, and occasionally joint deformity.
People with rheumatoid arthritis usually have worse stiffness in the mornings or after periods of inactivity. You may also experience a loss of appetite, fatigue, and fever.
Rheumatoid arthritis is a serious condition, so if you suspect you have it, you should make an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible.
Osteonecrosis may not be as common as some of the other causes of shoulder pain on our list, but it still affects a large number of people.
Osteonecrosis, also called avascular necrosis, is when your bone tissue dies due to a lack of blood supply. This can affect anyone, but it is most common in people between the ages of 30 and 50.
Shoulder fractures or dislocations usually happen preceding osteonecrosis. The osteonecrosis itself can take months or years to develop after your injury. This condition can also be caused by excessive alcohol consumption or long-term use of high-dose steroid medications.
Pain from osteonecrosis can be mild to severe and gets worse over time.
7. Dislocated shoulder
Another of the most common causes of shoulder pain is dislocation. If your shoulder has been dislocated, you probably know. Forcing your upper arm bone out of the socket usually takes a traumatic injury, and it is very, very painful.
Of course, you can also experience a partial dislocation called a subluxation. This may not be as obvious. A doctor will easily be able to tell you if your shoulder is out of socket or in the improper position.
8. Frozen shoulder
Frozen shoulder, also known as “adhesive capsulitis”, is an issue that causes pain and stiffness in your shoulder joint. This pain is often worse at night and can disrupt your sleep.
After a surgery or broken bone, you may develop frozen shoulder from having your joint immobilized for a length of time. That’s why it’s important to try to move your shoulder and start physical therapy exercises as soon as your doctor recommends following an injury.
The symptoms of frozen shoulder usually creep up on you and get worse over time. There are three stages it develops in:
- The Freezing Stage: You have limited range of motion and any shoulder movement causes pain. This can last from 2 to 9 months.
- The Frozen Stage: You experience less pain but your shoulder is even stiffer, making it difficult to use. This stage lasts from 4 to 12 months.
- The Thawing Stage: Your shoulder slowly improves. This stage lasts from 5 to 24 months.
Learning how to treat frozen shoulder depends on what stage you are in. Luckily, most people recover fully from frozen shoulder naturally within 1 to 3 years.
Your shoulder tendons connect the muscle and bones in your shoulder together. Sometimes, if you do a lot of overhead activities at work, or throw a ball regularly, you can develop acute tendonitis from overuse.
You may also develop chronic tendonitis over time with age.
The rotator cuff tendons and the biceps tendon are the most commonly affected. If you have tendonitis, you will feel burning and aching in your shoulder joint that worsens with use.
10. Torn cartilage
Another one of the most common causes of shoulder pain is torn cartilage. Your shoulder labrum (cartilage) lines the socket of your shoulder joint. If it tears, you may experience pain, instability, and a sensation that your shoulder is slipping out of place.
Other symptoms of torn shoulder cartilage include:
- Loss of range of motion
- Reduced strength
- Popping, locking, or grinding
Labral tears are most commonly caused by traumatic injury or overuse. They can happen at any location within your shoulder socket.
11. Shoulder impingement
Last on our list of common causes of shoulder pain is shoulder impingement. Shoulder impingement occurs when the top of your shoulder blade puts pressure on the soft tissues underneath.
As you lift your arm, the scapula “impinges” on your rotator cuff and bursae. This can actually cause tendinitis and bursitis if left untreated.
If you have shoulder impingement, you will feel pinching and burning when you lift your arm.
Now that you know all about the common causes of shoulder pain, let’s discuss how you can find relief.
Finding relief for your shoulder pain
There are many ways to treat shoulder pain, but the avenue you take will depend on the cause of shoulder pain and its severity.
In some cases, you will need shoulder surgery, and your doctor can help you decide if that is best for your case. Of course, surgery is only undertaken as a last resort. First, your doctor may suggest non-surgical joint treatments.
Some options include:
- R.I.C.E. (Rest, Ice, Compress, Elevate)
- Topical pain ointments
- NSAIDs (Ibuprofen, Naproxen, etc)
- Supplements for shoulder pain
- Anti-inflammatory foods
- Physical therapy
One of the best supplements for shoulder pain is collagen.
What is collagen? Collagen is the primary protein that the bones, muscles, cartilage, and tendons in your shoulder are made out of. When you supplement with daily collagen, it gives your body all the building blocks it needs to make your shoulder structures strong and healthy.
The best collagen for joints is a hydrolyzed collagen supplement, because these supplements are more easily absorbed by your body. Of course, even then, not all supplements are made equally.
Supplements aren’t FDA regulated on the whole, which means you could end up with a product that isn’t effective, or is even harmful to your health. To ensure the quality of your supplement, we recommended a medical grade collagen supplement.
Medical grade collagen is regulated by the FDA and is trusted for use in thousands of medical facilities across the country. Ask your doctor if a simple daily supplement could help as part of your plan for relief from shoulder pain.