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Shoulder pain

Medically reviewed on January 11, 2018

Definition

Shoulder pain may arise from the shoulder joint itself or from any of the many surrounding muscles, ligaments or tendons. Shoulder pain that comes from the joint usually worsens with activities or movement of your arm or shoulder.

Various diseases and conditions affecting structures in your chest or abdomen, such as heart disease or gallbladder disease, also can cause shoulder pain. Shoulder pain that arises from another structure is called referred pain. Referred shoulder pain usually doesn't worsen when you move your shoulder.

Causes

Shoulder pain causes include:

  • Avascular necrosis (death of bone tissue due to limited blood flow)
  • Brachial plexus injury
  • Broken arm
  • Broken collarbone
  • Bursitis (joint inflammation)
  • Cervical radiculopathy
  • Dislocated shoulder
  • Frozen shoulder
  • Heart attack
  • Impingement
  • Osteoarthritis (disease causing the breakdown of joints)
  • Polymyalgia rheumatica
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (inflammatory joint disease)
  • Rotator cuff injury
  • Separated shoulder
  • Septic arthritis
  • Sprains and strains
  • Tendinitis
  • Tendon rupture
  • Thoracic outlet syndrome
  • Torn cartilage

When to see a doctor

Call 911 or emergency medical assistance

Shoulder pain accompanied by difficulty breathing or a sense of tightness in the chest may be a symptom of a heart attack and requires immediate medical attention.

Seek immediate medical attention

Ask someone to drive you to urgent care or the emergency room if your shoulder pain is caused by an injury and is accompanied by:

  • A joint that appears deformed
  • Inability to use the joint or move your arm away from your body
  • Intense pain
  • Sudden swelling

Schedule an office visit

Make an appointment with your doctor if your shoulder pain is accompanied by:

  • Swelling
  • Redness
  • Tenderness and warmth around the joint

Self-care

To relieve minor shoulder pain you might try:

  • Pain relievers. Over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) and naproxen sodium (Aleve) may help.
  • Rest. Avoid using your shoulder in ways that cause or worsen pain.
  • Ice. Apply an ice pack to your painful shoulder for 15 to 20 minutes a few times each day.

Often, self-care measures and a little time could be all you need to relieve your shoulder pain.

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