Written By: Chloe Wilson BSc (Hons) Physiotherapy
Reviewed By: SPE Medical Review Board
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.
Shoulder pain causes may stem from one of the four shoulder joints, the muscles, bones, or other soft tissues such as the labrum. 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 shoulder pain causes come from:
So let's have a look at the most common shoulder pain causes:
Shoulder impingement syndrome is one of the most common causes of shoulder pain. With impingement syndrome, soft tissues in the shoulder get pinched or trapped leading to inflammation and tearing.
Shoulder impingement is typically caused by anything which reduces the space between the shoulder bones such as bursitis or bone spurs.
Common symptoms of shoulder impingement syndrome are:
Find Out More: Shoulder Impingement Syndrome: Causes & Treatment
Another one of the most common shoulder pain causes is a rotator cuff tear. This is where there is damage to one of the stabilising muscles of the shoulder.
Rotator cuff tears may develop suddenly with an injury such as a fall or heavy lifting, or may develop gradually over time from wear and tear and friction.
Common symptoms of a rotator cuff tear include:
Find Out More: Rotator Cuff Tears: Causes & Treatment
Frozen shoulders, aka adhesive capsulitis, are one of the common shoulder pain causes in women aged 40-60. With a frozen shoulder, there is inflammation, thickening and tightening of the joint capsule.
This may develop following an injury, shoulder surgery or various medical conditions such as diabetes.
Common symptoms include:
Find Out More: Frozen Shoulders: Causes & Treatment
Glenoid labrum tears, where there is damage to the special layer of cartilage the forms the outer rim of the shoulder socket, are another possible cause of shoulder pain.
Labrum tears are usually caused by a sudden injury to the shoulder such as a fall, road traffic accident, awkward/heavy lifting or shoulder dislocation but can also develop gradually with repetitive overhead activities such as decorating.
Damage may occur in the upper part of the shoulder labrum, known as a SLAP Tear, or the lower part of the labrum may tear, known as a Bankart Lesion.
Common symptoms of a labrum tear include:
Find Out More: Shoulder Labrum Tear: Causes, Treatment & Recovery
Supraspinatus tendonitis is another of the possible shoulder pain causes in middle age. It is caused by irritation and inflammation of the supraspinatus rotator cuff tendon, typically from repeated friction on the tendon caused by narrowing of the subacromial space and/or repetitive overhead activities.
The classic features of supraspinatus tendonitis are:
Find Out More: Supraspinatus Tendonitis: Treatment & Recovery
Biceps tendonitis can cause shoulder pain or elbow pain, depending on which part of the tendon is affected.
Inflammation or degeneration, from repetitive overhead activities, heavy lifting, contact sports or aging leads to inflammation or degeneration of one of the biceps tendons.
Common symptoms of biceps tendonitis include:
Find Out More: Biceps Tendonitis: Causes & Treatment
Bursitis shoulder pain causes discomfort and restriction of arm movements due to Inflammation of one of the small fluid-filled sacs around the shoulder.
Shoulder bursitis may develop after repetitive overhead activities, a fall, shoulder impingement or certain medical conditions
Common symptoms of shoulder bursitis include:
Find Out More: Shoulder Bursitis: Causes & Treatment
Snapping scapula syndrome is caused by inflammation of the bursae underneath the shoulder blade aka Subscapularis Bursitis.
It typically develops due to poor posture, overuse, bony abnormality, shoulder weakness or after an injury
Typical shoulder symptoms include:
Find Out More: Snapping Scapula Syndrome: Causes & Treatment
One of the more serious shoulder pain causes is a fracture or break in one of the shoulder bones.
Shoulder fractures are typically caused by a fall onto the arm or hand, a direct blow to the upper arm/shoulder, or changes in bone structure from aging or osteoporosis.
If you have a broken shoulder, you will normally know about it and there may be:
Find Out More: Shoulder Fractures: Causes, Types & Treatment
: Clavicle Fractures: aka Broken Collar Bone
One of the rarer shoulder pain causes is inflammation of the nerves at the brachial plexus, known as Brachial Neuritis or Parsonage Turner Syndrome.
Brachial neuritis may develop in response to an infection, systemic illness, vaccination, injury or surgery and there may be a genetic predisposition to it.
Typical symptoms of brachial neuritis include:
Find Out More: Brachial Neuritis: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment
Another rare cause of shoulder problems is restless arm syndrome. With restless arm syndrome is where there is a problem in the central nervous system which results in abnormal sensations and/or movements in the arms.
You are more prone to developing restless arm syndrome with a dopamine imbalance, pregnancy and certain medical conditions e.g. Parkinson’s & kidney disease and there is a strong genetic link too.
Common symptoms of restless arm syndrome are:
Find Out More: Restless Arm Syndrome: Causes & Treatment
Shoulder acne is a common shoulder problem caused by clogged, irritated skin pores which results in spots or lesions around the shoulder.
Acne at the shoulder or in the arm is usually caused by excess oil secretion, skin friction, excess keratin or an allergic reaction
Different types of shoulder acne present differently and there may be anything from small white or black heads to pus filled spots across the shoulders, arms and back. Shoulder acne may or may not cause shoulder pain
Find Out More: Shoulder Acne: Types, Causes & Treatment
Swimmers shoulder is the most common injury seen in swimmers affecting up to 90% of people who swim regularly.
Swimming makes the shoulder complex work really hard through a huge range of movement and against a great deal of resistance. And strokes such as freestyle and butterfly require the shoulder to work in it's most vulnerable position.
If you swim regularly and have shoulder pain, chances are it's swimmers shoulder.
Find Out More: Swimmers Shoulder: Causes, Treatment & Prevention
There are a number of different things that can cause pain further down the arm at the elbow
If you don't already know what is wrong with your shoulder or arm and want some help working it out, visit the shoulder pain diagnosis or elbow pain diagnosis sections.
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 or if the pain is further down your arm visit the elbow 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: 12/14/2022
Next Review Due: 12/14/2024
Diagnose Your Pain
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February 2, 2022
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