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Shoulder pain

Shoulder pain is very common and can affect you at any age. It usually results from an injury, wear and tear or repetitive use.

Summary introduction

Often shoulder pain goes away in a few weeks, but it’s important to see a doctor if:

  • It’s sudden and severe
  • It’s affecting your ability to do everyday things
  • It hasn’t gone away after a few weeks

It may be the sign of an injury or medical condition that can be treated.

Causes of shoulder pain

There are different types of shoulder pain depending on the cause:

Chronic (long-term) pain

This is often a symptom of wear and tear of the joint caused by osteoarthritis, where the cartilage at the ends of the bones wears away, so the bones rub together painfully. Rheumatoid arthritis, frozen shoulder or a trapped nerve can also cause long-term shoulder pain.

Pain that gets worse with movement

This is often caused by a rotator cuff injury, which affect the band of muscles and tendons surrounding your shoulder joint. Injury or wear and tear to the rotator cuff can cause tendonitis, bursitis and shoulder impingement.

You're more likely to have this kind of shoulder pain if you play a lot of sport or work in a job that involves repetitive movement and reaching of your arms.

Sudden or severe onset of pain

This usually follows an injury such as a:

  • Dislocated shoulder
  • Fracture of your shoulder, collarbone or arm
  • Ruptured tendon

It can also be a sign of septic arthritis – an infection of the shoulder joint.

Shoulder pain may also be referred, which means it comes from another area of your body, but you feel it in your shoulder. This could include back pain – including upper back pain, whiplash injury, or chest or heart conditions.

It’s important to seek immediate medical advice if you experience:

  • Sudden and severe pain
  • Pins and needles or numbness in your arm
  • Your arm feels hot or cold to the touch

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

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Getting a diagnosis for shoulder pain

Your doctor will discuss your shoulder pain with you and carry out a physical examination. This may include assessing your range of movement.

Other investigations may include:

  • Blood tests – to see whether you have an underlying medical condition, such as rheumatoid arthritis
  • X-ray
  • An ultrasound scan or MRI scan to examine the soft tissues around the joint

In some cases, your doctor may refer you to a shoulder specialist – an orthopaedic consultant or a rheumatologist (who specialises in diagnosing and treating musculo-skeletal problems and arthritis).

Treatments for shoulder pain

There are a number of treatments to relieve shoulder pain including:

  • Resting and avoiding activities that cause the pain
  • Over-the-counter painkillers if advised by your doctor
  • Using Ice packs

If the pain doesn’t improve your doctor may arrange for you to have physiotherapy or a steroid injection into the shoulder.

In some cases, you may need to have surgery to repair a rotator cuff injury, release a frozen shoulder, or you may need shoulder joint replacement surgery.

Enquire about treatments at your local Spire hospital

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