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Shoulder pain

Diagnosis of shoulder pain

When you visit Dignity Health with symptoms of shoulder pain, your doctor will examine your shoulder and test your strength (how well you can rotate and lift your arm). Imaging tests like X-ray, CT scan, or MRI will help your doctor make the right diagnosis.

Arthrography (an imaging test with contrast dye) or arthroscopy (minimally invasive) surgery to see inside the joint and make repairs) may also be used to assess your shoulder pain symptoms.


If your shoulder pain is the result of mild injury or overuse, you may be able to treat it at home with basic care and possibly physical therapy. Cases of chronic shoulder pain can be treated effectively at a Dignity Health hospital or outpatient clinic.

While most cases of shoulder pain can be treated through physical therapy and rest, your doctor may also recommend a minimally invasive procedure to repair damage to your tendons or bones. This is more likely if your shoulder pain is the result of an injury or severe osteoarthritis.

Shoulder arthroscopy is one standard procedure where a small camera is inserted through a small incision to fix issues such as a torn rotator cuff, dislocated shoulder, or broken scapula. When there is advanced deterioration of the joint from arthritis, you may need to undergo a partial or complete shoulder joint replacement, also known as shoulder arthroplasty.


Shoulder pain often resolves on its own with rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Your doctor may also prescribe physical therapy for a few weeks up to a few months to regain strength and range of motion in your stabilizing muscles.

If you undergo shoulder surgery or a shoulder replacement, your recovery may take longer. In almost all cases, you can expect to regain most of your previous range of motion and for your shoulder pain to resolve.

When to see a surgeon for shoulder pain

Shoulder pain on its own is typically not life-threatening. Nevertheless, it can sometimes be a symptom of referred pain from a heart attack, which is a medical emergency. You should call 911 if you have shoulder pain along with any of these symptoms of a heart attack:

  • Chest pain, tightness, or pressure
  • Jaw, neck, or abdominal pain
  • Trouble breathing

You should also seek urgent medical care for non-emergency symptoms of shoulder pain that do not resolve with home treatment, including:

  • Fever
  • 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
  • Lack of normal range of motion that does not resolve after a week of home care

Dignity Health provides comprehensive care for symptoms of shoulder pain as part of our orthopedic services.

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