5 reasons why your shoulder is hurting

By Megan Storey | November 9, 2018

Our shoulders are pretty awesome, but they are indeed a complex little network of muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones. And an injury or imbalance can cause anything from a niggle to excruciating pain. Here’s a list of five common shoulder injuries to help you figure out why your shoulder is hurting.

Frozen shoulder

Do you have severe stiffness in your shoulder, unable to move it the way you normally would? You might have frozen shoulder. Its medical name is Adhesive Capsulitis, and it happens when the connective tissue that lines your shoulder joint becomes thickened and inflamed. It’s most common in middle-age women, and there are certain factors that put you more at risk. For example, up to 20% of people with diabetes develop frozen shoulder, and those with thyroid problems or Parkinson’s disease may also be more at risk of developing it.

If you think you have frozen shoulder, see your physio. It’s often a long road to recovery, and while frozen shoulder might fix itself eventually, a physio helps speed that process up.

Rotator cuff tendonitis

There are four rotator cuff muscles in the shoulder joint. They are responsible for keeping the ball of your upper arm bone (humerus) in the shoulder socket (scapula – or shoulder blade), and they help you rotate, lift and drop your arm.

If you perform repetitive movements using this joint, it could lead to inflammation of the rotator cuff tendons, which can cause pain. Tendonitis usually begins as a mild weakness or pain when moving the joint, but if left untreated, can become more severe and constant. To help it heal, avoid doing the repetitive activity, use ice or heat, and see your physio for manual therapy and strengthening exercises. Anti-inflammatory medication, like ibuprofen, may help with the pain.

Rotator cuff tear

You can partially or completely tear a shoulder tendon from excessive repetition or direct trauma, like a fall. If you have a sudden tear, your pain can be severe, however if you have a chronic tear, your pain, weakness or stiffness can worsen over time – so much so that you may not realise it’s even torn due to the gradual onset.

Rest from aggravating movements, ice or heat are helpful in recovery from tears. Anti-inflammatory medication may help with pain, but usually physio will be recommended to strengthen muscles and improve the mechanics of the shoulder joint. In some cases, a cortisone injection or surgery may be required.

Shoulder impingement

Any of the tendons or bursa (a fluid-filled sac that provides a smooth surface for your bones and muscles to glide over) that run through the small space in your shoulder joint can get impinged or pinched between the bones if inflammation occurs. You usually experience pain when moving your arm, especially when reaching overhead or backwards, or lying on your sore side. Many impingements are the result of repeated overhead activity, like when cleaning windows and bathroom tiles or when swimming.

Impingements may eventually weaken the rotator cuff, so if you think you have one, visit your physio. It’s important that you get treatment to alleviate pain, strengthen appropriate muscles and make sure your muscles are balanced so it doesn’t occur again.

Osteoarthritis

Often known as ‘OA’, Osteoarthritis stems from wear and tear on the shoulder joint. Your cartilage acts as a cushion between your bones, helping them to glide easily. OA destroys this cartilage, so that your bones rub against each other, instead of over the cartilage. This is painful and can cause swelling as well, making it difficult for you to move your arm. People sometimes say they hear a grinding or clicking sound when moving the shoulder.

Movement is medicine when it comes to OA, although there may be times when rest or modification of movement from aggravating activities is required. You can also use heat or ice, and anti-inflammatory medication might help. Your physio will also treat your shoulder, giving you exercises to both stretch and strengthen the muscles in and around the shoulder joint. In some cases, steroid injections might also be recommended.

 

These are just five common reasons your shoulder might be hurting – there are many more. Other reasons could include neck pain which presents in the shoulder, or a labral tear. If you experience any of these, reduce or stop the activity that is causing pain, and book in to see your physio for treatment. Trauma to the shoulder may lead to dislocation or a bone fracture, which will likely require an initial emergency department visit. Also keep in mind that pain in your left arm/shoulder (accompanied by chest pain) can also be a sign of more severe conditions, such as a heart attack. If you think you’re experiencing symptoms of a heart attack, ring 000 or go to the hospital immediately.