Common Causes of Shoulder Pain & How to Treat Them

The shoulders, those remarkable joints that grant us the freedom to reach for the stars or simply reach for a cup of coffee, play an indispensable role in our daily lives. Yet, when they become shrouded in discomfort or agony, even the simplest of tasks can turn into daunting challenges. Shoulder pain is a common ailment that affects millions of people worldwide, and its origins can be as diverse as the individuals it afflicts. From overworked muscles to degenerative conditions, understanding the common causes of shoulder pain is the first step towards finding relief and reclaiming the full range of motion that these versatile joints afford us. In this article, we embark on a journey through the intricacies of the shoulder, exploring the most prevalent culprits behind shoulder pain and discovering the strategies and treatments that can help you regain not only comfort but also the joy of unrestricted movement.

As someone who suffered with shoulder pain for over 10 years before undergoing surgery in 2022, I know the feeling all too well. It's also one of the more commonly presented conditions that I see in my sports injury clinic.

Shoulder health is a cornerstone of our overall physical well-being, as these remarkably flexible joints are instrumental in performing a multitude of daily tasks. From lifting a child to reaching for an item on a high shelf, shoulders are involved in almost every upper-body movement we make. They allow us to throw a ball, swim, and even hug a loved one. Maintaining healthy shoulders not only ensures our ability to partake in these everyday activities but also plays a pivotal role in preventing injuries and maintaining good posture. Furthermore, strong and pain-free shoulders are crucial for athletes and individuals engaged in physically demanding professions. In essence, shoulder health is integral to our quality of life, making it imperative to understand and address the common causes of shoulder pain while proactively seeking ways to promote their well-being.


The prevalence of Shoulder Pain

The prevalence of shoulder pain is a significant public health concern that affects a substantial portion of the global population. According to various studies and healthcare statistics, it has been estimated that approximately 18% to 26% of adults in the United States alone experience shoulder pain at some point in their lives. Moreover, shoulder pain is a frequent reason for seeking medical attention, with millions of visits to healthcare professionals each year attributed to shoulder-related issues. These statistics underscore the widespread nature of shoulder pain and its impact on individuals' daily lives, highlighting the need for increased awareness, early diagnosis, and effective treatment options to address this prevalent health issue.


​The Anatomy of the Shoulder

The human shoulder joint, often described as a marvel of anatomical complexity, is a but of a masterpiece of nature's design. Making up a crossroads of the upper arm, collarbone, and shoulder blade, the shoulder joint is a pivotal player in facilitating a wide range of motion and dexterity. Its remarkable flexibility allows us to lift, reach, throw, and embrace, enabling countless daily tasks that we often take for granted. However, this flexibility comes at a cost – the shoulder's intricate structure, comprised of bones, muscles, tendons, and ligaments, makes it vulnerable to a host of potential issues. In this exploration of the shoulder's anatomy and its complexity, we will unravel the intricacies of this joint, shedding light on both its incredible capabilities and the unique challenges it presents when it comes to shoulder health.

The shoulder joint's incredible range of motion and flexibility is made possible by the complex interplay of several key structures, including bones, muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Here's a detailed explanation of these vital components:


  1. Bones:

    • Humerus: The upper arm bone, known as the humerus, forms the central component of the shoulder joint. It features a rounded head that fits into the shallow socket of the shoulder blade (scapula), forming the ball-and-socket joint.

    • Scapula (Shoulder Blade): The scapula is a flat, triangular bone located on the upper back. It plays a crucial role in providing attachment points for muscles and stabilizing the shoulder joint. Notable features of the scapula include the glenoid cavity, which is the shallow socket that receives the humerus' head, and the acromion process, which forms the highest point of the shoulder and connects to the collarbone (clavicle).

    • Clavicle (Collarbone): The clavicle is a slender bone that connects the sternum (breastbone) to the acromion process of the scapula. It acts as a strut, providing stability to the shoulder and facilitating a wide range of arm movements.

  2. Muscles:

    • Rotator Cuff Muscles: These are a group of muscles that originate from the scapula and attach to the humerus. They include the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis muscles. The rotator cuff muscles are responsible for stabilizing the shoulder joint and facilitating rotational movements. They play a crucial role in overhead activities like lifting, throwing, and reaching, whilst preventing shoulder instability.

    • Deltoid Muscle: The deltoid is a large, triangular muscle covering the shoulder. It's responsible for the abduction (raising the arm away from the body) and flexion (raising the arm forward) of the arm.

    • Biceps and Triceps Muscles: The biceps brachii and triceps brachii muscles, primarily located in the upper arm, assist in various shoulder movements and arm flexion/extension.

  3. Tendons:

    • Rotator Cuff Tendons: These are tough, fibrous bands of connective tissue that connect the rotator cuff muscles to the humerus. They transmit the forces generated by the muscles to the bone, allowing for coordinated shoulder movements.

    • Biceps Tendon: The biceps tendon attaches the biceps muscle to the front of the scapula and, more significantly, to the humerus. It assists in various shoulder and arm movements.

  4. Ligaments:

    • Glenohumeral Ligaments: These ligaments reinforce the front, back, and bottom of the glenohumeral joint (the main joint in the shoulder). They provide stability to the shoulder by preventing excessive movement of the humerus.

    • Coracoclavicular Ligaments: These ligaments connect the clavicle to the coracoid process of the scapula, contributing to the stability of the acromioclavicular joint (AC joint) and the overall shoulder structure.


Understanding the intricate interactions among these key structures is crucial for appreciating the shoulder's remarkable capabilities and comprehending why it can be susceptible to various forms of pain and injury. Each component plays a unique role in ensuring the shoulder's functionality, making it one of the most versatile and complex joints in the human body.


Common Causes of Shoulder Pain

Rotator Cuff Injuries

The rotator cuff, a crucial component of the shoulder, consists of four key muscles and their associated tendons that work together to enable a wide range of shoulder movements and maintain joint stability. These muscles are responsible for lifting and rotating the arm, facilitating actions such as reaching, throwing, and lifting. They play a pivotal role in stabilizing the shoulder joint, ensuring that the head of the upper arm bone (humerus) remains securely within the shallow socket of the shoulder blade (scapula).

Rotator cuff injuries are a common affliction and can occur due to a variety of factors. Overuse, a prevalent cause, often affects individuals engaged in activities that require repetitive overhead motions, such as athletes or manual laborers. The constant stress placed on the rotator cuff tendons during these activities can lead to gradual wear and tear, making them more vulnerable to injury. Trauma, such as a fall or a sudden impact, can result in immediate damage or tears to the rotator cuff. Additionally, aging is a contributing factor, as the tendons tend to degenerate and weaken over time, increasing the likelihood of injury. Rotator cuff tendon tears can range from mild shoulder pain to extreme cases being very painful and depending on the severity, may lead to surgery.

Symptoms of rotator cuff injuries typically include pain, weakness, and restricted mobility in the affected shoulder. Individuals may experience discomfort when lifting the arm, reaching overhead, or during everyday activities like dressing or combing hair. Pain can be particularly pronounced at night, disrupting sleep patterns.

Treatment options for rotator cuff injuries vary depending on the severity of the injury. In less severe cases, rest, activity modification, and physical therapy may be sufficient. Physical therapy focuses on strengthening the rotator cuff muscles and improving shoulder mobility. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can help manage pain and inflammation. In more severe cases or when conservative methods prove ineffective, surgical intervention may be necessary. Arthroscopic surgery is a common approach to repair torn tendons and restore shoulder function. Post-surgery, physical therapy plays a crucial role in rehabilitation to regain strength and mobility, ensuring a successful recovery. Early diagnosis and appropriate treatment are essential to mitigate the long-term effects of rotator cuff injuries and to facilitate a return to pain-free shoulder function.


Frozen Shoulder (Adhesive Capsulitis)

Frozen shoulder, clinically known as adhesive capsulitis, is a debilitating shoulder condition characterized by the gradual onset of pain and stiffness, eventually leading to a severe limitation in shoulder mobility. This condition arises due to the thickening and contraction of the shoulder joint's capsule, which surrounds and encases the joint. As the capsule tightens and thickens, it restricts the space available for the humerus (upper arm bone) to move within the shoulder socket, resulting in pain and a significant reduction in range of motion.

Risk factors for frozen shoulder include age, with individuals over the age of 40 being more susceptible, and it is more prevalent among women than men. Certain medical conditions, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and thyroid disorders, are associated with an increased risk of developing frozen shoulder. Additionally, shoulder trauma or surgery, which can lead to extended periods of immobilization, can trigger the condition.

Symptoms of frozen shoulder progress through distinct stages. The first stage, the "freezing" phase, is characterized by gradually increasing pain and a noticeable decrease in shoulder mobility. This phase can last from a few weeks to several months. The second stage, the "frozen" phase, is marked by persistent pain and significantly limited shoulder movement, often lasting 4-6 months or longer. Finally, the "thawing" phase, during which symptoms gradually improve and shoulder mobility slowly returns, can last for up to a year or more.

Treatment approaches for frozen shoulder aim to alleviate pain, improve shoulder mobility, and restore functionality. Physical therapy is a cornerstone of treatment, involving targeted exercises and stretches that aim to gradually increase shoulder range of motion. Corticosteroid injections may be administered to reduce inflammation and alleviate pain. In some cases, a healthcare provider may recommend home exercises and daily stretching routines to complement in-office treatments. For severe cases that do not respond to conservative measures, manipulation under anesthesia or surgical release of the affected capsule may be considered. Frozen shoulder can be a challenging condition to manage, requiring patience and persistence in adhering to treatment plans, but with the right approach, most individuals can achieve significant improvement in their shoulder mobility and pain levels over time.


Shoulder Bursitis

Shoulder bursitis is a painful condition that involves inflammation of the bursae located in the shoulder joint. Bursae are small, fluid-filled sacs that act as cushions between bones, tendons, and muscles, reducing friction and allowing smooth movement of these structures. In the shoulder, there are several bursae, with the subacromial bursa being one of the most commonly affected. This bursa sits between the rotator cuff tendons and the acromion (a part of the shoulder blade), facilitating the gliding of tendons during arm movements.

The primary cause of shoulder bursitis is overuse or repetitive movements that put excessive stress on the bursa. This can occur in occupations or activities that involve repetitive overhead motions, such as painting, construction, or sports that require throwing. Additionally, direct trauma to the shoulder, infection, or underlying conditions like arthritis can also lead to bursitis.

Symptoms of shoulder bursitis typically include pain, tenderness, and swelling in the affected shoulder. The pain may worsen when lifting the arm or during specific movements, and it can radiate down the upper arm. Over time, the inflammation of the bursa can limit shoulder mobility, making it challenging to perform daily tasks and activities that require a wide range of motion.

Treatment options for shoulder bursitis often begin with conservative measures. Resting the affected shoulder and avoiding activities that exacerbate symptoms is crucial. Applying ice to the inflamed area can help reduce pain and swelling. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may be recommended to manage pain and inflammation. In more severe cases or when conservative treatments are ineffective, a healthcare provider may consider corticosteroid injections to reduce inflammation and relieve pain. Physical therapy can also play a valuable role in improving shoulder strength and range of motion. The key to successful treatment lies in early diagnosis and a well-rounded approach that addresses both symptom relief and the underlying causes of shoulder bursitis.


Shoulder Tendonitis

Shoulder tendonitis, also known as tendinitis, is a condition characterized by the inflammation and irritation of tendons in the shoulder region. Tendons are thick cords of connective tissue that attach muscles to bones, allowing for the transmission of forces and facilitating joint movement. In the shoulder, several tendons are susceptible to inflammation, with the most commonly affected ones being the biceps tendon and the supraspinatus tendon.

The biceps tendon attaches the biceps muscle to the front of the shoulder and plays a significant role in shoulder movement and stability. The supraspinatus tendon is one of the four rotator cuff tendons, attaching the supraspinatus muscle to the top of the humerus (upper arm bone). It is responsible for initiating arm abduction (raising the arm away from the body) and helps stabilize the shoulder joint.

Tendinitis in the shoulder often occurs due to repetitive overhead motions or activities that place excessive strain on the tendons. These activities can include sports like tennis, swimming, or baseball, as well as jobs or hobbies that involve repetitive lifting or reaching. Additionally, age-related degeneration of tendons can also contribute to the development of tendinitis.

Treatment strategies for shoulder tendinitis typically involve rest to allow the inflamed tendons to heal. Avoiding activities that exacerbate symptoms is essential during this phase. Physical therapy is commonly prescribed to strengthen the shoulder muscles and improve range of motion. Specific exercises and stretches can help alleviate pain and prevent future occurrences of tendinitis. In some cases, anti-inflammatory medications or corticosteroid injections may be recommended to reduce inflammation and provide pain relief. The key to effectively managing shoulder tendonitis lies in early intervention, following a structured rehabilitation plan, and making lifestyle adjustments to prevent further strain on the affected tendons.


Shoulder Arthritis

Shoulder arthritis encompasses several types of arthritis that can affect the shoulder joint, with the most common forms being osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Osteoarthritis, often referred to as "wear-and-tear arthritis," occurs when the protective cartilage that cushions the ends of the bones in the shoulder joint deteriorates over time. This leads to pain, stiffness, and reduced mobility. Rheumatoid arthritis, on the other hand, is an autoimmune disease that causes chronic inflammation in the shoulder joint, resulting in the erosion of the joint's cartilage and damage to surrounding tissues.

The hallmark symptoms of shoulder arthritis include pain, stiffness, and a limited range of motion in the affected shoulder. The pain tends to worsen with activity and may interfere with daily tasks like dressing, combing hair, or lifting objects. Over time, as the arthritis progresses, these symptoms can become increasingly debilitating.

Management and treatment of shoulder arthritis aim to alleviate pain, improve joint function, and enhance the individual's quality of life. Non-surgical approaches often begin with over-the-counter pain relievers and anti-inflammatory medications to manage symptoms. For more severe cases, a healthcare provider may recommend prescription medications, such as disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) for rheumatoid arthritis.

Joint injections with corticosteroids can provide temporary relief by reducing inflammation and pain. Physical therapy plays a crucial role in strengthening the shoulder muscles, improving joint flexibility, and teaching individuals techniques to manage their condition independently. Lifestyle modifications, including rest, activity modification, and the use of assistive devices, can also help reduce symptoms.

In cases where conservative treatments prove ineffective, surgical intervention may be considered. Procedures like joint arthroscopy, shoulder resurfacing, or shoulder replacement (arthroplasty) can be performed to alleviate pain and restore function. The choice of treatment depends on the type and severity of arthritis, as well as the individual's overall health and preferences. An individualized approach, guided by a healthcare provider or orthopedic specialist, is essential for effectively managing shoulder arthritis and improving the patient's quality of life.


How to Prevent Shoulder Pain?

Shoulder pain, often underestimated until it becomes a persistent issue, underscores the importance of proactive shoulder care and prevention. Maintaining healthy shoulders is crucial for preserving daily functionality and preventing debilitating pain. To this end, there are several key strategies for maintaining shoulder health and minimizing the risk of shoulder pain.

Firstly, recognizing the importance of shoulder care is essential. The shoulders are integral to a wide range of daily activities, and their health directly impacts our overall quality of life. By prioritizing shoulder health, individuals can safeguard themselves against the limitations and discomfort that shoulder pain can bring.

Proper posture and ergonomics play a pivotal role in shoulder health. Maintaining good posture, whether sitting at a desk or engaging in physical activities, helps distribute weight and forces evenly across the shoulders and spine, reducing the risk of strain. Ergonomic adjustments in workspaces and activities can also reduce unnecessary stress on the shoulders. This includes adjusting chair and desk heights, using proper lifting techniques, and optimizing the setup of tools or equipment to minimize awkward positions.

Strengthening exercises can help keep the shoulder muscles and rotator cuff tendons robust and resilient. Engaging in regular strength-training exercises that target the shoulder, such as resistance band exercises or free weights, can enhance the stability and support of the shoulder joint.

Avoiding overuse and repetitive movements is another vital aspect of shoulder care. Individuals engaged in sports, professions, or hobbies that involve frequent overhead movements or repetitive actions should take regular breaks, practice proper form, and incorporate rest days into their routines to prevent overuse injuries.

In summary, proactive shoulder care is key to preventing shoulder pain. By emphasizing good posture, ergonomics, and strengthening exercises while being mindful of overuse and repetitive movements, individuals can significantly reduce the risk of shoulder pain and maintain their shoulder health for a more comfortable and functional life.


When should I see a doctor about my shoulder pain?

As soon as shoulder pain begins, you should always address it in some way. This may initially be to apply an ice pack onto the area of pain and rest for a few days. Sometimes normal function returns after a couple of days and there is no need to visit a medical professional to get checked out. However in cases where the pain is severe or it has been lasting a while, it is important to get your pain assessed.

Knowing when to seek medical help for shoulder pain is crucial to prevent potential complications and ensure proper treatment. There are certain warning signs that should prompt immediate medical attention, including severe trauma, dislocation, or if shoulder pain is accompanied by sudden numbness, tingling, or weakness in the arm or hand, as these symptoms could indicate nerve or vascular damage.

Furthermore, it's advisable to consult a healthcare professional, such as an orthopedic specialist or a physical therapist, for persistent or worsening shoulder pain that limits your daily activities, lasts for more than a few days, or doesn't improve with rest and over-the-counter pain medications. Other indications for seeking professional help include difficulty raising your arm, significant swelling, or if you suspect a rotator cuff tear. Additionally, if you have underlying medical conditions like diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis, which can increase the risk of shoulder problems, it's essential to consult a healthcare provider for a comprehensive evaluation and tailored treatment plan. Seeking timely medical assistance can lead to an accurate diagnosis and effective management of shoulder pain, promoting a faster and more complete recovery, potentially avoiding the need for shoulder surgery.


In conclusion, shoulder pain is a widespread and multifaceted issue that can stem from various causes, including rotator cuff injuries, frozen shoulder, bursitis, tendinitis, and arthritis. Understanding the factors that contribute to shoulder pain is essential in safeguarding our shoulder health and overall well-being. More importantly, early diagnosis and appropriate treatment are paramount. By promptly addressing shoulder discomfort and seeking professional guidance, we can prevent the progression of minor issues into debilitating conditions, ensuring a quicker and more complete recovery. In the grand symphony of daily activities, our shoulders play an indispensable role, and taking steps to prioritize shoulder health should be a priority. Being the most mobile joint in the body, it is always a good idea to keep it strong and prevent any symptoms of shoulder pain or injury. Let us all be proactive in recognizing the signs, maintaining proper posture, practicing ergonomics, engaging in strengthening exercises, and, when needed, reaching out to healthcare professionals for assistance. Your shoulders, the unsung heroes of your daily life, deserve the care and attention that will keep them functioning at their best, allowing you to embrace life's challenges and joys with comfort and confidence.

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Arun Gray sports therapist strength and conditioning coach skegness

The author

Arun Gray is a sports therapist and strength & conditioning coach with over 15 years experience in the industry. He also has a personal history with chronic shoulder and back pain along with a range of other sporting injuries.

Arun writes about common injuries and aims to help people understand and manage their pain to prevent having to rely on national healthcare.

Read more about Arun