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Shoulder pain

Overview of shoulder pain

Shoulder pain is defined as any level of discomfort in or around the area of the shoulder joint. Symptoms of shoulder pain can be mild, such as a dull ache that gradually builds over several weeks, or be a more sudden, sharp pain.

If you’ve experienced a rotator cuff tear, a frozen shoulder, or another kind of shoulder injury or condition, Dignity Health offers complete diagnosis and treatment. To receive the orthopedic services you need, Find a Doctor nearby.


Common signs and symptoms of shoulder pain include:

  • Warmth or redness in your shoulder
  • Neck pain, arm pain, or back pain
  • A clicking, popping, or grinding sensation when you move your arm
  • Muscle stiffness and weakness
  • Limited range of motion

Visit a Dignity Health hospital or outpatient clinic if you can’t move your shoulder or arm, or if you experience sudden or intense pain, swelling, or deformity in your arm.


The shoulder is the most mobile joint in the entire body. It allows us to throw things, reach across our body, and lift our arms above our heads. Unfortunately, with this flexibility comes greater vulnerability. The shoulder has many moving parts that can be injured.

The shoulder includes several bones, such as the clavicle (collar bone), humerus (arm bone), and scapula (shoulder blade). These are held together by muscles, ligaments, and tendons, which move the shoulder and cushion the joints. For example, the rotator cuff is a group of muscles and four tendons in the shoulder, which enable rotation and movement.

In addition to these tissues, the shoulder houses nerves running to your arms and hands, and fluid-filled sacs called bursa, which provide cushioning.

Any of these structures can be injured or affected by health conditions, leading to shoulder pain. In most cases however, shoulder pain is caused by a problem with the joint and the surrounding muscles and tendons.

For example, common causes of shoulder pain include:

  • Arthritis, or inflammation of one or more joints, causing pain and stiffness that gets worse with age
  • Bone fractures, such as a fractured collarbone, shoulder blade, or arm
  • Bursitis, or inflammation of the fluid-filled sacs that protect joints
  • Torn tendons or tendinitis, such as a rotator cuff tear, which can cause inflammation from overuse
  • Shoulder dislocation or separation, also called instability
  • Pinched nerves, which when in the neck can cause shoulder pain, sometimes extending to the hand
  • Bone spurs on the ends of one or more of the bones connected by your shoulder joints

Other medical conditions and diseases such as spinal cord injuries and heart attack can also cause shoulder pain. These situations are called referred shoulder pain.

Risk factors

Shoulder pain is often caused by injury or overuse, both of which are more likely for those who engage in sports and other high-risk activities.

Risk factors for shoulder pain include:

  • Engaging in constant or repetitive motion of the arm
  • Participating in sports such as baseball, football, softball, gymnastics, climbing, or basketball
  • Having a history of spine injury, liver, heart, or gallbladder disease
  • Being older: it’s more likely after the age of 60, as soft tissues such as cartilage and tendons can degenerate over time


It’s not always possible to prevent accidental injuries, but there are ways you can reduce your risk and protect your shoulder. For example:

  • Listen to your body’s signals when engaging in an activity; if something hurts, ease off until you recover.
  • Warm up before activity, especially activities that involve throwing or hanging from your arms.
  • Maintain a healthy weight and activity level, as recommended by your doctor.
  • If your doctor recommends it, do exercises to strengthen the muscles surrounding your shoulder to protect the joint.
  • Use proper ergonomics at work to support your shoulder and avoid repetitive use injuries.

The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.