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Shoulder pain has many different causes.

Shoulder pain has many different causes.
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Shoulder pain

3-minute read

Pain in the shoulders has many different causes. The pain may occur in the joint itself, or in the many muscles, tendons and ligaments in the shoulders.

Shoulder pain is usually felt in the front of the shoulder, or at the top of the arm. Often, the pain is only felt when you move your arm in a certain way. If you have shoulder pain, but you are also having trouble breathing and feel a tightness in your chest, you may be having a heart attack. You should seek medical attention immediately by dialing triple zero (000) and asking for an ambulance.

You should also seek immediate medical attention if you have injured your shoulder - for example, while playing sport or in a fall.

Otherwise, if you have shoulder pain that won’t go away or which is getting worse, or you have other symptoms that are causing you concern, make an appointment to see your doctor.

The doctor will most likely examine your shoulder and ask about your symptoms. They may suggest an x-ray or other scans to assist with diagnosis, although such tests are usually only helpful in certain situations, such as if there is an injury that needs to be investigated.

Causes of shoulder pain

Shoulder problems can be serious or minor. They can also be acute (meaning severe, and with a sudden onset) or chronic (meaning they develop over and last for a long period of time).

The causes of shoulder pain include general wear and tear with increasing age; arthritis; overuse (for example, during certain sports or other activities that involve continual or repetitive use of the shoulder); falls and other types of injuries; and poor posture.

There are several kinds of injuries that can cause pain in your shoulder. These include:

  • rotator cuff problems (such as tears and strains in the muscles or tendons of the shoulder)
  • adhesive capsulitis (frozen shoulder), characterised by stiffness and pain in the shoulder joint
  • shoulder impingement syndrome (a condition where tendons in the shoulder are trapped during movement)
  • shoulder dislocation or instability
  • bone fractures.

Shoulder pain can sometimes be caused by an underlying medical condition, such as fibromyalgia or polymyalgia rheumatica. Occasionally, shoulder pain and shortness of breath appear as symptoms when someone is having a heart attack.

Treatments for shoulder pain

The treatment recommended for your shoulder pain will depend on the cause. 

If your shoulder pain is due to minor injury, you may be able to organise some treatments at home yourself. In the first few days after an injury, putting a cold pack on the sore area (eg for 10 to 20 minutes, three times a day) can help to reduce inflammation. After that, a hot pack can be used to help relax your shoulder muscles.

Pain relievers or anti-inflammatory medications may also help control the pain.

But for persistent or intense pain, or if you’re injured, you should see a doctor or physiotherapist, who may suggest:

  • resting your shoulder for some time (usually only a couple of days)
  • taping your shoulder for support, or resting your arm
  • massage
  • exercises
  • laser or ultrasound therapy.

Steroid injections or surgery may be recommended for some injuries.

Prevention of shoulder pain

You may be able to prevent some shoulder pain by:

  • staying in good physical shape
  • being aware of your posture and how you perform activities
  • warming up before exercise and stretching after exercise
  • lifting and carrying heavy items correctly
  • taking breaks, stretching and relaxing.

Last reviewed: April 2017

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