Shoulder injuries are typically diagnosed through a physical exam. Your doctor will check your range of motion and look for swelling, deformity, and other abnormalities around your joint.
If you experienced an injury, your doctor will likely also perform an imaging test, such as an x-ray, or an MRI, PET, or CT scan, to get a better picture of your shoulder and the bones and connective tissue that may be affected.
Your doctor may use arthrography (a type of imaging test using injected contrast dye) to get a picture of the connective tissue. Your doctor may also use arthroscopy (a minimally invasive surgical technique which uses a camera inserted through a tiny incision) to look inside the joint and make minor repairs.
Your specific shoulder problem will determine your treatment and prevention options. However, some basic principles apply to most shoulder problems.
Treatment starts with nonsurgical approaches, including rest, anti-inflammatory medication, and exercises to strengthen the shoulder and restore flexibility. Physical therapy techniques can speed healing and prevent mild problems from becoming severe.
Your doctor may also recommend corticosteroid shots for the shoulder. Surgery may be necessary if these methods fail to resolve the problem.
In the vast majority of cases, soft tissue injuries to the shoulder will heal on their own. A period of rest is often enough to allow you to return to your previous activities within a few weeks.
Depending on the nature of your shoulder problem, your doctor may also suggest that you complete physical therapy exercises to rehabilitate the muscles and tendons of your arm. That way you can regain strength in your shoulder and prevent further injury.
In the case of more severe injuries, such as torn rotator cuffs or bone fractures, treatment may be more involved and require surgery, with several weeks or months of recovery.
Speak with your doctor about what to expect following surgical recovery. Most people with shoulder injuries will regain most of their previous range of motion after treatment.
When to see a surgeon for shoulder injuries
Shoulder injuries are not usually life-threatening; most resolve on their own with rest, ice, and other conservative, at-home treatment.
However, in some rare cases, spinal cord injuries and heart attacks can show up with or as shoulder pain. This is called referred shoulder pain.
A heart attack is a medical emergency. Call 911 if you have pain in your shoulder and any of these symptoms, which could indicate referred pain from a heart attack:
- Chest pain, tightness, or pressure
- Jaw, neck, or abdominal pain
- Trouble breathing
You should also seek urgent care for other more severe symptoms of shoulder injury, including:
- Feeling like your shoulder might pop out of the socket
- Any deformity around your shoulder
- Complete inability to move your arm or shoulder
- Bruising or discoloration around your shoulder
- Swelling or heat around your shoulder
- Pain that persists after more than a week of home care
- Weakness or lack of normal range of motion that does not return to normal after a week of home care
- Numbness or tingling in your hands or fingers
Dignity Health provides comprehensive care and treatment for a wide array of shoulder conditions and injuries, as part of our orthopedic services. If you have arthritis, a rotator cuff tear, a frozen shoulder, or another kind of shoulder injury or condition, Find a Doctor near you.
The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.