Causes of Shoulder Pain and How to Treat It

 Male physical therapist doing shoulder exercises with a woman in a doctor’s office.

Shoulder pain affects the majority of us at some time in our lives. We understand the impact shoulder pain has on life’s everyday activities, like drinking a glass of water, brushing your teeth, and getting dressed. You do not have to work through the pain.

There are a number of potential causes of your shoulder pain and a number of corresponding treatments. Some shoulder pain and injuries can be treated at home, while others require an orthopedic shoulder specialist. EmergeOrtho has a team of board-certified shoulder experts who accurately diagnose shoulder pain using clinical evalutation and advanced imaging technologies and then provide appropriate, shoulder-specific treatment protocols to get you back to your normal routines and activities as quickly and safely as possible.

Anatomy of the Shoulder

Understanding how the shoulder works can help you better pinpoint the source of your pain. Shoulder anatomy and how it contributes to the function of the shoulder is one of the most complex systems in our bodies. The three main bones that make up the shoulder joint are the humerus (upper arm bone), the shoulder blade (scapula), and the clavicle (collarbone).

The rotator cuff is a group of four distinct muscles and tendons that provide shoulder strength and stability when we move. The rotator cuff “steers” the ball of the shoulder within the cup. The humerus fits loosely in a socket in the shoulder joint, which is why the shoulder has such a large range of motion . The ball-and-socket configuration and the rotator cuff which stabilizes the joint makes the shoulder susceptible to a number of conditions and injuries that can cause weakness and pain.

Common Causes of Shoulder Pain

The majority of shoulder issues fall into four categories:

1. Tendon inflammation (bursitis or tendinitis) or tendon tear


A bursa is a fluid-filled sack that separates two surfaces and allows the surfaces to move against each other smoothly. Ordinarily, a bursa is like a deflated balloon that has a bit of slippery fluid in it, allowing the sides of the balloon to move smoothly against each other. When inflamed, the bursa becomes swollen and painful and sometimes scars in, resulting in limited motion of the shoulder.


An inflammation or irritation of the rotator cuff or biceps tendon, such as swimmer’s shoulder or pitcher’s shoulder.

Tendon Tears

A partial or complete tear of the rotator cuff tendons or the biceps tendon. This can be caused by trauma such as a fall, car wreck, repetitive movement, overuse, or lifting injury.


Shoulder impingement occurs when the shoulder blade rubs against or pinches your rotator cuff beneath it, causing pain and irritation with shoulder movement.

2. Instability or Dislocation

Shoulder instability usually occurs from one of two reasons. First, some people have genetically “loose” joints that allow the ball to slip too far in relation to the cup, resulting in the ball coming partially or occasionally fully out of the cup. Second, injuries to the structures that stabilize the ball within the cup (the ligaments and rotator cuff) can cause the ball to come out of the cup.

3. Arthritis

The most common type of shoulder arthritis is osteoarthritisalso known as “wear and tear” arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis, where the body attacks the joint, is another cause.

4. Fractures

Fractures are broken bones, most commonly of the collarbone, upper arm bone, and shoulder blade.

Home Treatments for Shoulder Injuries and Pain

If you are experiencing shoulder pain, there are some home remedies you can try that have been shown to reduce pain and inflammation. These include:

  • Anti-inflammatory medication

  • Cold compresses

  • Compression wraps

  • Heat therapy

  • Muscle relaxers

  • Pain medication (tylenol and/or anti-inflammatories, like aspirin, motrin, naprosyn)
  • Rest

  • Massage

When Should I See an Orthopedic Shoulder Specialist?

Many shoulder injuries and pain conditions cannot be treated at home and may require professional medical help. If you experience any of the following symptoms, you should make an appointment with an orthopedic shoulder expert:

  • Shoulder pain that lasts longer than a week or is not relieved by home treatments
  • Interrupted sleep due to shoulder pain or discomfort
  • Pain when you lift your arms over your head, across your body, or backward
  • Weakness or inability to lift the arm
  • A snapping, clicking, or popping sound in the shoulder
  • A previous injury in the affected shoulder area, making it susceptible to reinjury
  • Visible abnormality or deformity of the shoulder
  • Injury or trauma to the shoulder

Treatments Shoulder Orthopedists Use

Having an accurate, timely diagnosis is essential to getting proper treatment for shoulder pain. Our diagnostic process begins with a thorough medical history and a physical examination of the shoulder. Next, we provide advanced diagnostic technologies in-office to diagnose shoulderinjuries and conditions. These include state-of-the-art MRI scanners, electromyography (EMG) and nerve conduction studies (NCS), computed tomography scans (CT), and X-rays.

Nonsurgical Treatment Methods

Many shoulder conditions can be successfully treated with nonsurgical methods. These methods include:

  • Rest
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications
  • Cortisone injections
  • Physical therapy
  • Dry Needling
  • TENEX procedure
  • Platelet-rich-plasma injections
  • STEM cell treatments

Surgical Treatment Methods

When conservative treatments fail to reduce or eliminate pain, surgery is an option. Some of the most common minimally invasive and advanced shoulder surgical procedures we utilize include:

  • Arthroscopic shoulder surgery
  • Rotator cuff surgery
  • Superior capsule reconstruction
  • Shoulder replacement
  • Reverse shoulder replacement
  • SLAP repair
  • Biceps tenodesis
  • Arthroscopic acromioplasty
  • Resection of distal clavicle for arthritis
  • Arthroscopic stabilization for dislocations
  • Open stabilization for dislocations
  • Operative fixation of clavicle fractures
  • Operative fixation of proximal humeral fractures

We are here to help you get relief from your pain. Our board-certified team has decades of experience in diagnosing and treating everything concerning shoulders. If you are experiencing pain that is affecting your movement and function, request an appointment here and emerge stronger, healthier, and better.