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The shoulder has a wide and versatile range of motion. When something goes wrong with your shoulder, it hampers your ability to move freely and can cause a great deal of pain and discomfort.
The shoulder is a ball-and-socket joint that has three main bones: the humerus (long arm bone), the clavicle (collarbone), and the scapula (also known as the shoulder blade). These bones are cushioned by a layer of cartilage. There are two main joints:
The shoulder joint is the most mobile joint in the body. It moves the shoulder forward and backward and also allows the arm to move in a circular motion, and to move up and away from the body.
Shoulders get their range of motion from the rotator cuff, which is made up of four tendons. Tendons are the tissues that connect muscles to bone. If the tendons or bones around the rotator cuff suffer damage or swelling, you may find it painful and difficult to lift your arm up over your head.
The shoulder can be injured by performing manual labor, playing sports, or even by repetitive movement. Certain diseases can bring about pain that travels to the shoulder, such as disease of the cervical spine of the neck, as well as liver, heart, or gallbladder disease.
You are more likely to have problems with your shoulder as you grow older, especially after age 60. This is because the soft tissues surrounding the shoulder tend to degenerate with age.
In many cases, shoulder pain can be treated at home. Depending on the cause, physical therapy, medications, or surgery may be necessary.
A number of factors and conditions can contribute to shoulder pain. The most prevalent cause is rotator cuff tendinitis, a condition where the tendons are inflamed.
Sometimes shoulder pain is the result of injury to another location in your body — usually the neck or bicep. This is called referred pain. Referred pain generally does not get worse upon movement of the shoulder.
Common causes of shoulder pain include, but are not limited to:
Some minor shoulder pain can be treated at home. Icing the shoulder for 15 to 20 minutes, three or four times a day for two to three days can help reduce pain. Use an ice bag or wrap ice in a towel (putting ice directly on your skin can cause frostbite).
Other home treatments include:
If you’ve never experienced shoulder pain before and your pain is not related to an injury, sudden shoulder pain can be a sign of heart attack. If shoulder pain continues to your neck, jaw, or chest, and you also experience trouble breathing, tightness in the chest, dizziness or excessive sweating, call 9-1-1 immediately.
If you injured your shoulder and it is bleeding, swollen, or you see exposed bone, tissue or tendons, go to an emergency room or urgent care center as quickly as possible.
Additionally, you should contact your doctor if you experience:
Your doctor will want to find out the cause of your shoulder pain. Your doctor will conduct a physical examination, feeling for injury, and assessing your range of motion and joint stability. Imaging tests, such as an X-ray or MRI, can produce detailed pictures of your shoulder to help with the diagnosis.
Your doctor may also ask questions to determine the cause. Be prepared to answer the following questions:
Treatment will depend on the cause and severity of the shoulder pain and may include:
If you’ve had surgery on your shoulder, follow after-care instructions carefully.
Simple shoulder exercises can help to stretch and strengthen muscles and rotator cuff tendons. A physical therapist can show you how to do them properly.
If you’ve had previous issues with your shoulders, use ice for 15 minutes after exercising to prevent future injuries.
After a bout of bursitis or tendinitis, performing simple range-of-motion exercises every day can keep you from getting frozen shoulder.
Written by: Ann Pietrangelo
Medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD
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