Shoulder Pain Causes

Written By: Chloe Wilson BSc (Hons) Physiotherapy

Common Shoulder Pain Causes: Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment Options

Shoulder pain causes a whole range of problems, affect around 70% of people at some point in their lives.

The shoulder joint is the most mobile joint in the whole body - just think about the movements you can do with your arm compared to your leg.

But it is vital to have good strength and stability to allow all of this shoulder and arm movement without pain and the risk of injury.

Shoulder pain may come on suddenly or build up gradually over time, be linked with a specific injury or have no obvious cause.

Common Causes of Shoulder Pain

Here we will look at the most common shoulder pain causes, how they develop, typical symptoms and then go on to look at how to treat them.

 The most common causes of shoulder pain come from:

  • Soft Tissues: muscles, ligaments, bursa, joint capsule and labrum e.g. shoulder impingement and bursitis
  • Bones: fractures, wear and tear or bone spurs
  • Neurological: Problems in central or peripheral nervous systems
  • Skin: e.g. acne
  • Referred Pain: pain from a nearby structure e.g. neck

If you don't already know what is wrong with your shoulder and want some help working it out, visit the shoulder pain diagnosis section.

1. Shoulder Impingement Syndrome

Shoulder Pain Causes: Impingement Syndrome - Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment

Soft tissues in the shoulder get pinched or trapped leading to inflammation and tearing

Causes: Reduced space between the shoulder bones

Symptoms: Sharp pain, worse when arm above head or behind back, difficulty sleeping, restricted arm movements

Full Article: Shoulder Impingement

2. rotator Cuff Tear

Shoulder Pain Causes - Rotator Cuff tears. Symptoms, diagnosis & treatment

Damage to the rotator cuff muscles that support and move the shoulder and arm

Causes: Sudden injury, fall, awkward lifting gradual wear and tear, friction

Symptoms: Shoulder pain, dull ache worse when lifting or twisting arm, weakness, popping and cracking noises

Full Article: Rotator Cuff Tears

3. frozen Shoulder

Shoulder Pain Causes: Frozen Shoulder aka Adhesive Capsulitis

Inflammation, thickening and tightening of the joint capsule, aka adhesive capsulitis

Causes: Shoulder injury, surgery, various medical conditions, age, gender

Symptoms: Increasing shoulder pain and stiffness, severely restricted shoulder movements & function

Full Article: Frozen Shoulder

4. glenoid Labrum Tear

Causes of Shoulder Pain: Labrum Tears - Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment

Damage to the special layer of cartilage the forms the outer rim of the shoulder socket

Causes: RTA, fall, awkward/heavy lifting, shoulder dislocation, overhead activities

Symptoms: Instability, weakness, catching/locking sensation, dislocation

Full Articles: SLAP Tear (upper labrum) & Bankart Lesion (lower labrum)

5. supraspinatus Tendonitis

Causes of Shoulder Pain: Supraspinatus Tendonitis - Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment

Irritation and inflammation of the supraspinatus rotator cuff tendon 

Causes: repetitive overhead activities, narrowing of subacromial space 

Symptoms: Classic feature is a painful arc when abducting arm, sleep disturbance, arm weakness and reduced function

Full Article: Supraspinatus Tendonitis

6. biceps Tendonitis

Causes of Shoulder Pain: Biceps Tendonitis - Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment

Inflammation or degeneration of one of the biceps tendons

Causes: repetitive overhead activities, heavy lifting, contact sports, aging

Symptoms: Deep throbbing pain front of shoulder or elbow, worse with activity, night pain, snapping sensation

Full Article: Biceps Tendonitis

7. shoulder Bursitis

Causes of Shoulder Pain: Shoulder Bursitis - Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment

Inflammation of one of the small fluid-filled sacs around the shoulder

Causes: repetitive overhead activities, fall, impingement, medical conditions

Symptoms: Aching shoulder pain, worse with arm movements, restricted arm movement, weakness, feeling unwell

Full Article: Shoulder Bursitis

8. snapping Scapula Syndrome

Shoulder Pain Causes: Snapping Scapula aka Scapulothoracic Bursitis

Inflammation of the bursae underneath the shoulder blade aka Subscapularis Bursitis 

Causes: Poor posture, overuse, bony abnormality, weakness, injury

Symptoms: Snapping or grating noise in the shoulder blades with arm movement, constant aching pain, lump on shoulder blade

Full Article: Snapping Scapula Syndrome

9. shoulder Fractures

Causes of Shoulder Pain: Shoulder Fractures - Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment

A break in part of the upper arm bone, the humerus

Causes: Fall, direct blow to the upper arm/shoulder, aging, osteoporosis

Symptoms: Obvious deformity, restricted arm/shoulder movement, swelling and bruising, altered sensation

Full Article: Shoulder Fractures

10. collarbone Fractures

Causes of Shoulder Pain: Collarbone Fractures - Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment

A break along the clavicle bone at the front of the shoulder

Causes: Fall onto side of shoulder or outstretched hand, direct blow to clavicle, forceful arm twisting

Symptoms: Immediate sharp pain, deformity, numbness and tingling in arm and hand, limited shoulder movement

Full Article: Clavicle Fractures

11. brachial Neuritis

Shoulder Pain Causes: Brachial Neuritis aka Parsonage Turner Syndrome

Inflammation of the nerves at the brachial plexus aka Parsonage Turner Syndrome

Causes: Genes, infection, systemic illness, vaccinations, injury, surgery

Symptoms: Rapid onset pain, usually at night, progressing to weakness, altered sensation and paralysis

Full Article: Brachial Neuritis

12. restless Arm Syndrome

Common Causes of Shoulder and Arm Pain: Restless Arm Syndrome

Problem in central nervous system causing abnormal sensations/movements in arms

Causes: Genetics, Dopamine Imbalance, medical conditions e.g. Parkinson’s & kidney disease, pregnancy

Symptoms: sudden, jerky, uncontrollable arm movements, worse in evenings or when relaxing, altered sensation

Full Article: Restless Arm Syndrome

13. shoulder Acne

Shoulder Problems: Shoulder and Arm Acne - causes, symptoms & treatment

Clogged, irritate, skin pores resulting in spots or lesions around the shoulder

Causes: Excess oil secretion, skin friction, excess keratin, allergic reaction

Symptoms: Anything from small white or black heads to pus filled spots across shoulders, arms and back

Full Article: Shoulder Acne

How Common Are They?

Shoulder pain is a really common problem affecting people at any age, but some shoulder pain causes are more common than others

Very Common: Rotator Cuff Tear, Supraspinatus TendonitisShoulder ImpingementFrozen ShoulderShoulder Fractures

Common: Bursitis, AcneClavicle Fracture, Proximal Humeral Fracture, Midshaft Humeral FractureSLAP tear, Bankart Lesion, Biceps Tendonitis

Rare: Snapping Scapula Syndrome, Restless Arm Syndrome, Brachial Neuritis, Triceps Tendonitis

How Do I Know What is Wrong?

Many shoulder pain causes can be identified by the symptoms you are experiencing. Sometimes, there is an overlap of symptoms between conditions, and it is not uncommon to be suffering from more than one shoulder problem at the same time.

The following symptoms can be helpful when identifying shoulder pain causes:

If you want help working out which of these shoulder pain causes is affecting you, visit the shoulder pain diagnosis section.

Treating Shoulder Pain Causes

Treatment will vary for different shoulder pain causes. In most cases, exercises will help to strengthen the shoulder and improve it's stability. You can find a whole range of exercises, whatever your problem in the exercises for shoulder pain section.

Other things such as injections, friction massage, posture correction and in some cases surgery may also be suitable for some shoulder pain causes.

To find the correct treatment for the different shoulder pain causes, use the links above.

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Page Last Updated: 29/06/2021
Next Review Due: 29/06/2023


1. Shoulder Disorders and Occupation. By Dr CH Linaker & Dr K Walker-Bone. Journal of Best Practice & Research Clinical Rheumatology. June 2015

2. Shoulder Pain: Diagnosis and Management in Primary Care - by C Mitchell, A. Adebajo, E. Hay & A. Carr. British Medical Journal. 2005