Shoulder Symptoms

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What are the signs of shoulder problems?

Shoulder symptoms include, but are not limited to, pain, tenderness, swelling, and limited mobility or stiffness that may indicate problems with the underlying joint, muscles or tendons in the shoulder. The most common shoulder symptoms typically are pain, swelling, stiffness, or a reduction in shoulder mobility.

The shoulder has a greater range of motion than any other joint in the body. However, the anatomical composition of the shoulder that allows this range of motion also makes the shoulder more susceptible to injury or damage than many other joints in the body. Because of this, shoulder symptoms are among the more prevalent joint symptoms treated by doctors.

The parts of the shoulder commonly involved with shoulder symptoms include the humerus (upper arm bone), the scapula (shoulder blade), the clavicle (collarbone), the rotator cuff, and the tendons, muscles and ligaments that connect these structures.

Although anyone may develop shoulder symptoms, those who repetitively use their shoulders for overhead activities, such as sports, weight lifting, and certain types of work, and older people whose joints are affected by the normal aging process, are more susceptible. Generally, shoulder symptoms may be treated with adequate rest and the administration of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin). Acupuncture may give short term relief of shoulder pain. However, symptoms due to more severe underlying causes may need to be treated with physical therapy, steroid injections or surgery.

Some shoulder injuries may be serious, and shoulder symptoms accompanied by other symptoms may indicate serious or even life-threatening medical conditions. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you experience the sudden onset of pressure in your shoulder, feel a crushing pain in your shoulder, or have shoulder symptoms accompanied by a shortness of breath, dizziness, chest pain or pressure, or sweating.

Seek prompt medical care if you suffer a severe injury to your shoulder; have redness, warmth, swelling or bruising on or around the shoulder; shoulder pain that persists longer than two weeks; difficulty moving your shoulder; shoulder symptoms accompanied by fever; or if the affected arm takes on a bluish or reddened color.

What other symptoms might occur with shoulder symptoms?

Shoulder symptoms may accompany other symptoms that vary depending on the underlying injury, disease, disorder or condition.

Common symptoms that may occur along with shoulder symptoms

Shoulder symptoms may include a variety of symptoms that may at times be severe including:

  • Achiness
  • Back, neck or arm pain
  • Bruising
  • Clicking and other noises when you move your arm
  • Fatigue
  • FeverGrinding or popping feeling
  • Muscle stiffness and weakness
  • Painful movement of the arm
  • Reduced range of motion
  • Sensitivity to touch
  • Shoulder, arm, hand or finger pain
  • Skin discoloration such as bruising
  • Stiffness in the shoulder
  • Swelling (edema) of the arm
  • Warmth or burning
  • Weakness (loss of strength)

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, shoulder symptoms may indicate a heart attack and should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dizziness
  • Feeling of crushing pain in the shoulder
  • Gastrointestinal distress
  • General shoulder symptoms accompanied by sweating
  • Sudden onset of pressure in the shoulder

What causes shoulder symptoms?

Shoulder symptoms may be caused by a variety of injuries, diseases, or other underlying medical conditions, although the most common causes are overuse or strain. If you engage in activities that require repetitive overhead motion of your shoulder, such as swimming or painting, you are more likely to develop shoulder symptoms. Additionally, as you age, the tendons and ligaments that hold the shoulder in place may begin to wear down and become loose, which can also make you more susceptible to shoulder symptoms.

Common causes of shoulder symptoms

Shoulder symptoms may be caused by common or natural events or conditions including:

  • Activities that require repetitive overhead use of the shoulder
  • Arthritis
  • Bursitis (inflammation of a bursa sac that cushions a joint)
  • Fragments of bone or cartilage within the joint
  • Frozen shoulder syndrome
  • Impingement (pinching or rubbing of the tendon between the rotator cuff and the top of the shoulder)
  • Injury, such as a fall or a blow
  • Normal aging (wearing down of the tendons and ligaments in the shoulder)
  • Shoulder dislocation, separation, sprain or strain
  • Shoulder fracture
  • Tendinitis
  • Torn rotator cuff

Serious or life-threatening causes of shoulder symptoms

In some cases, shoulder symptoms may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:

Questions for diagnosing the cause of shoulder symptoms

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your shoulder symptoms including:

  • When did you first notice your shoulder symptoms?
  • Are your symptoms present in one or both shoulders?
  • Do you have any other medical conditions?
  • Do you have any other symptoms?
  • Do you have any symptoms in your arm?
  • Do you have limited mobility in your shoulder(s)?
  • Do your symptoms change with movement; that is, does pain worsen when you lift your shoulder?
  • Have you had any trauma to your shoulder?
  • How severe are your symptoms?
  • What part of your shoulder is affected?

What are the potential complications of shoulder symptoms?

Shoulder symptoms are most commonly due to joint overuse or strain and, if treated with proper rest, generally do not result in serious complications. However, shoulder symptoms can be an indication of a serious injury or underlying disease that needs to be identified and treated. Because shoulder symptoms can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Absenteeism from work or school
  • Adverse effects of treatment
  • Diminished quality of life
  • Disability
  • Inability to participate normally in activities
  • Inability to perform daily tasks
  • Loss of strength
  • Organ failure or dysfunction
  • Permanent or chronic pain
  • Reduced mobility (range of motion of the joint)
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 2
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  7. Kahan S, Miller R, Smith EG (Eds.). In A Page Signs & Symptoms, 2d ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams & Williams, 2009.
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