Written By: Chloe Wilson BSc (Hons) Physiotherapy
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:
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Shoulder pain is a really common problem affecting people at any age, but some shoulder pain causes are more common than others
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.
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.
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