Common Shoulder Pain Causes

Author: 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.

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

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

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

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

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)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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, Shoulder ImpingementFrozen ShoulderShoulder Fractures

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

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

How Do I Know What is Wrong?

Many shoulder pain causes can be identified by the symptoms you are experience. 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:

Reduced Movement: Shoulder movement is restricted – Frozen Shoulder, rotator cuff tear, bursitis, fractured shoulder

Instability: Shoulder instability, subluxation and dislocation - labrum tear (SLAP tear or Bankart Lesion)

Painful Arc: Pain that peaks around shoulder height but lessens as you take the arm further up or down – Shoulder Impingement and/or rotator cuff tear

Deformity: A visible bump, broken skin or arm at unusual angle – broken shoulder, clavicle fracture or humeral fracture

Altered Sensation: tingling, pins and needles and/or numbness – neurological problem, either with the central or peripheral nervous system e.g. Brachial Neuritis or Restless Arm Syndrome

Popping/Cracking Noises: Unusual noises when moving the arm – rotator cuff tear, snapping scapula syndrome

Catching/Locking Sensation: Feels like something gets caught or stick in the shoulder joint – labrum tear, shoulder impingement

Uncontrollable Arm Movements: Restless Arm Syndrome

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 blade causes.

  1. Shoulder Pain Guide
  2.  ›
  3. Conditions & Injuries

Page Last Updated: 10/01/19
Next Review Due: 10/01/21


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

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