Sharp Pain In Shoulder

Written By: Chloe Wilson BSc (Hons) Physiotherapy

Sharp Pain In Shoulder: Causes, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment

Sharp pain in shoulder problems are common.

They may develop suddenly with an injury or gradually over time, but whatever the cause, they can quickly affect daily life and even disturb your sleep.

In most cases sharp pain in the shoulder is due to structures in an around the shoulder either catching against each other e.g. tendonitis, or getting squashed e.g. impingement.

But sometimes it may be that the problem isn’t in the shoulder itself but that it’s actually referred pain from the neck.

Causes of Sharp Shoulder Pain

Here we are going to look at the common causes of sharp pain in the shoulder and help you work out what is causing your pain. At the end, we will look at common daily activities that often cause sharp shoulder pain.

1. Shoulder Impingement Syndrome

Shoulder impingement syndrome often causes a sharp pain in the shoulder. A number of the tendons in the shoulder pass under a bony bridge, called the acromion, through the subacromial space. The space here is very narrow and it is common for the tendons to get squashed as you lift your arm. Anything which makes the tunnel smaller than usual such as bone spurs or inflammation makes it even more likely for impingement to occur.

Sharp Pain In Shoulder: Shoulder Impingement Syndrome often causes a painful arc with arm movements

The sharp pain in shoulder impingement tends to get worse as you lift your arm up, either out to the side or in front of you, particularly if your arm is twisted inwards. The space under the acromion is smallest when the arm is around shoulder height which often results in a painful arc of movement, which actually gets better once the arm is lifted high enough to open up the subacromial space.

You can find out more about the common causes, symptoms and treatment options in the Shoulder Impingement Syndrome section.

2. Labrum Tear

Shoulder Labrum Tears: SLAP Tear and Bankart Lesion

The socket of the shoulder joint has a rim of cartilage called the labrum which helps to deepen the socket and improve the stability of the joint.

There are two different types of labrum tear, depending on which part of the labrum is damaged:

Tears in the labrum can occur from wear and tear, often in people who do lots of overhead activities like swimming, throwing or racquet sports, or more commonly from an injury to the shoulder such as a fall or lifting something particularly heavy. Shoulder dislocations often result in damage to the labrum.

Labrum tear symptoms typically include a sharp pain in shoulder when moving the arm, weakness and decreased strength in the upper arm and ongoing problems with shoulder instability. People often say it feels like their shoulder is going to pop out of its socket.

You can find out loads more about the causes, symptoms and treatment options in the SLAP Tear and Bankart Lesion articles.

3. Pinched Nerve

If your sharp pain in shoulder is accompanied by tingling, pins and needles, weakness or numbness in your shoulder, arm or hand, chances are that it is caused by a pinched nerve. The arm nerves arise from the spinal vertebrae in the neck, branching off down each arm, across the shoulders and all the way down to the hands.

The nerves can get pinched at the neck from:

  • Disc Disease: Disc degeneration, a disc bulge or a herniated disc place pressure on the nerve root which can cause sharp, shooting pains in the arm
  • Spinal Stenosis: Narrowing of the gaps in the spine where the spinal cord and nerve roots run
  • Cervical Spondylosis: aka neck arthritis where there is wear and tear of the neck bones and discs. Bone spurs form, narrowing the space around the vertebra and can end up placing pressure on the surrounding nerves.

You can find out lots more about the common causes, symptoms and treatment options for a pinched nerve in the arm nerve pain section.

4. Shoulder Tendonitis

Inflammation or tearing of the shoulder tendons can cause sharp shoulder pain. The two most likely culprits are:

Shoulder tendonitis may be caused by repetitive overhead activities such as sports or DIY, trying to lift something that is too heavy, shoulder impingement or a fall onto an outstretched hand.

You can find out all about the causes, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment options in the Supraspinatus Tendonitis and Biceps Tendonitis articles.

5. Rotator Cuff Tear

Sharp Pain In Shoulder: Rotator Cuff Tear causes, symptoms, diagnosis & treatment

The four main muscles responsible for moving the shoulder and keeping it stable are known collectively as the rotator cuff.

There are three different grades of rotator tear, depending on the number of fibres that are torn. Most rotator cuff tears are due to wear and tear and degeneration associated with aging, making them more common in people over the age of 40.

Rotator cuff tears usually cause a dull aching pain in the shoulder and upper arm, but there can also be a sharp pain in the shoulder when doing things like brushing your hair or lying on your side. People often complain of popping or cracking noises when they move their arm due to the reduced shoulder stability when the rotator cuff is torn.

You can find out loads more about the common causes, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment options in the Torn Rotator Cuff article.

Sharp Pain In Shoulder Diagnosis

Here is a quick check list to help diagnose the cause of the sharp pain in your shoulder:

  1. Sharp Pain In Front Of Shoulder: Impingement syndrome, biceps tendonitis, clavicle fracture

  2. Sharp Pain in Shoulder and Neck: cervical stenosis, nerve root irritation or arthritis. 

  3. Sharp Pain In Shoulder When Lifting Arm: Impingement syndrome, rotator cuff tear, biceps tendonitis (reaching forwards), supraspinatus tendonitis (reaching out to the side)

  4. Sharp Pain In Shoulder After Sleeping: impingement syndrome, frozen shoulder or bursitis, particularly if you normally sleep on the affected side

  5. Sharp Pain in Shoulder When Throwing: SLAP tear, biceps tendonitis, rotator cuff tear or shoulder impingement

  6. Sharp Pain In Shoulder Blade: heart problems, lung problems, PE, heart attack, aortic dissection (high blood pressure, circulatory problems, smoking & diabetes, brachial neuritis. Find out more in the Shoulder Blade Pain section

  7. Sharp Pain In Left Shoulder: medical conditions e.g. heart problems, soft tissue damage e.g. tendonitis or labrum tear, joint problems e.g. impingement or a fracture, spinal/nerve problems e.g. disc degeneration or spinal stenosis. Find out more in the Left Arm Pain section

  8. Sharp Pain In Right Shoulder: often due to overuse as it is more commonly the dominant hand e.g. impingement syndrome or rotator cuff tear

  9. Sharp Pain In Shoulder When Breathing: Usually a medical issue rather than a problem in the shoulder e.g. PE, heart problems, lung problems (e.g. pleurisy, PE, pneumothorax) or dislocated rib. If you get a sharp pain in shoulder and chest or when breathing, get checked out by your doctor.

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Page Last Updated: 07/07/2021
Next Review Due: 07/07/2023