Written By: Chloe Wilson BSc (Hons) Physiotherapy
Reviewed By: SPE Medical Review Board
Back of shoulder pain is common problem with lots of possible causes, and different symptoms will indicate different problems.
There might be pain behind the shoulder blade which may indicate a scapula problem or there may be tingling in the back of the shoulder which could indicate nerve involvement.
There might be a small, localised area of pain behind the shoulder which is easy to pinpoint, but more often the pain is quite diffuse making it difficult to tell where exactly it is coming from.
It might even stretch downwards causing back of arm pain. And in some cases, the problem isn't actually in the shoulder, the pain is actually referred from somewhere else.
It's not always easy to work out what is causing pain behind the shoulder, but we're here to help. Here we will look at the common causes of back of shoulder pain, how they present, how to work out which one you have and then how to treat pain behind the shoulder.
Pain behind the shoulder is usually caused by a problem in the:
We will start off by looking at the possible causes of back of shoulder pain that come from the shoulder joint itself and then go on to look at other possible problems that can refer pain behind the shoulder.
Pain at the back of the shoulder is often caused by a problem in the shoulder joint itself, either affecting the bones, joint capsule or the labrum. The most common problems at the shoulder joint that cause back of shoulder pain are:
A common cause of back of shoulder pain is posterior shoulder impingement syndrome.
Shoulder impingement syndrome is caused by narrowing of the subacromial space at the top of the shoulder due to:
Narrowing of the subacromial space leads to increased friction and pressure on the tendons, particularly when the arm is above head height as that position further reduces the subacromial space.
Posterior shoulder impingement syndrome typically causes compression on the supraspinatus and infraspinatus tendons which leads to:
Posterior shoulder impingement syndrome typically affects people who do repetitive activities with their arm above shoulder height such as overhead throwing sports and DIY.
You can find out all about the common causes, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment options in the Shoulder Impingement Syndrome article.
Another possible cause of back of shoulder pain is a glenoid labrum tear in the ring of cartilage that sits round the edge of the shoulder socket to increase stability.
There are two types of shoulder labrum tear that can cause pain behind the shoulder:
Labrum tears are typically a result of sporting injuries, falls, awkward heavy lifting or shoulder dislocation.
Shoulder labrum tears usually cause:
Back of shoulder pain from a labrum tear is more commonly from a SLAP tear whereas a Bankart lesion typically causes front shoulder pain.
You can find out all about back of shoulder pain from labrum tears and how to treat them in the Shoulder Labrum Tears section.
Another common cause of pain behind the shoulder is adhesive capsulitis, aka frozen shoulder, particularly in middle aged people.
With adhesive capsulitis, there is inflammation, thickening and tightening of the shoulder joint capsule.
The cause of a frozen shoulder is often unknown but may be linked to shoulder injuries, surgery or certain medical conditions.
Adhesive capsulitis is most common between the ages of 40-70 and is more prevalent in females.
The most common symptoms of a frozen shoulder are
A frozen shoulder typically goes through three phases. In phase one, the pain gradually gets worse and worse but with little restriction of movement. In phase two, the pain reduces but the shoulder becomes increasingly stiff. In phase three, the shoulder gradually thaws out until you regain full pain-free range of motion.
You can find out all about how to treat this cause of pain behind the shoulder and the causes, symptoms, and recovery process in the Frozen Shoulder section.
One of the more serious causes of back of shoulder pain is a fracture, aka broken shoulder bone. It takes a great deal of force to break the shoulder, and fractures are typically caused by a fall or a direct blow to the shoulder. Any one of the three shoulder bones can break, the collarbone, humerus or shoulder blade.
Shoulder fractures can be extremely painful and may limit arm movement, but don’t always require surgery.
You can find out all about the different types of fractures that affect the shoulder and upper arm leading to pain behind the shoulder in the Shoulder Fractures section.
Pain behind the shoulder can also be caused by problems in the shoulder muscles and tendons. There may be inflammation, degeneration, weakness or tightness in the soft tissues causing back of shoulder pain.
One of the most common causes of pain behind the shoulder is a rotator cuff tear. The rotator cuff is a group of four muscles that encircle the shoulder joint providing strength, stability and power in the shoulder. The rotator cuff muscles each arise from the front of the shoulder blade and attach on to the top of the humerus at the front of the shoulder.
Rotator cuff tears usually develop:
Posture and age can also play a part. Rotator cuff tears typically cause:
Rotator cuff injuries to infraspinatus or teres minor are more likely to cause back of shoulder pain than supraspinatus or subscapularis injuries due to their position.
You can find out all about the different types of rotator cuff tears, how they cause back of shoulder pain and how to treat them in the Torn Rotator Cuff section.
If the back of your shoulder hurts, it could be from tendonitis, inflammation of one of the shoulder tendons.
The most common type of shoulder tendonitis to cause back of shoulder pain is triceps tendonitis. Triceps tendonitis may be caused by repetitive overuse or an injury. Typical symptoms of triceps tendonitis include:
Find out all about how triceps tendonitis causes back of shoulder and arm pain and how to treat it in the Triceps Tendonitis section.
Myofascial trigger points are a common cause of pain behind the shoulder, particularly in people who spend a lot of time sat at a desk.
Trigger points are small, tight areas of muscle fascia which can be extremely painful. They are often described as knots of muscle and are particularly prevalent at the back of the shoulder, along the lower neck and in shoulder blade region in the trapezius muscle.
The best way to get rid of trigger points is a combination of heat, posture re-education, stretches and massage.
You can find out more about pain behind the shoulder from trigger points and how to treat them in the Trigger Points & Trapezius Pain article.
A lot of the time, back of shoulder pain isn’t caused by a problem in the shoulder itself but is actually referred pain from the neck or the spinal nerves, resulting in arm nerve pain.
Nerve damage typically causes:
A nerve may be damaged anywhere along its path from the neck down to the hand. Typically nerve pain behind the shoulder is caused by:
You can find out all about nerve pain behind the shoulder, the common causes and how to treat them in the Arm Nerve Pain section.
Back of shoulder pain can also be a sign of an underling medical condition. Conditions that can cause pain behind the shoulder include:
Some medical conditions which cause back of shoulder pain can be very serious. If you have any of the following symptoms, seek urgent medical attention
Problems in and around the shoulder blade can also cause back of shoulder pain.
Usually there will be pain behind the shoulder blade and you might find your back of shoulder hurts too.
Common problems in the shoulder blade that cause pain behind the shoulder include:
You can find out all about the different types of scapular pain including the causes, symptoms and treatment options in the Shoulder Blade Pain section.
Treatment for back of shoulder pain will depend on what the underlying cause it but usually involves:
The earlier you start treatment, the quicker your pain behind the shoulder is likely to settle and the less likely you are to have ongoing problems such as tenderness and stiffness.
Here we have looked at the most common causes of back of shoulder pain and how to identify which one is causing your pain. If your pain is more around the shoulder blade region than at the back of the shoulder joint, have a look at the following articles:
If you need more help working out why the back of your shoulder hurts, visit the shoulder pain diagnosis section or choose from the following articles:
Page Last Updated: 05/02/2023
Next Review Due: 05/02/2025
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