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What is shoulder pain?

Shoulder pain relates to any pain or discomfort that is located in or around the shoulder. It may originate from the joint or from any of the surrounding muscles or tendons. The shoulder is a complex region with many interconnected parts and a versatile range of motion, so locating the exact source of the pain may be difficult. In general, movement of the arm or shoulder will make the pain worse.


Causes of shoulder pain

The possible causes of shoulder pain are numerous – some more common and some not so much. Here are some of the typical reason you may be feeling a degree of pain or discomfort in the shoulder region:

Rotator Cuff injury: The Rotator Cuff is a collection of muscles and tendons that help move the shoulder and aid with general stabilisation. Overuse or a heavy blow may cause small tears or strains in the Rotator Cuff, leading to pain and discomfort in the shoulder.

Frozen shoulder: Frozen Shoulder is caused by misuse of the shoulder muscles. Stiffness and pain are the main indicators. The range of motion is your shoulder will also be greatly limited.

Osteoarthritis:  Occurs when the spongy cushion of cartilage at the end of bones wears wears away. This can cause great discomfort and stiffness.

Dislocated Shoulder: Due to the high range of motion that the shoulder is capable of, dislocation is quite common. A dislocated shoulder is when the bone of the upper arm pops out of its socket in the shoulder blade.

Separated Shoulder: A separated shoulder is different to a dislocated shoulder as it only affects the ligaments holding the collarbone to the shoulder blade. This can range from mild stretching to a complete tear.

Broken Arm: A broken Humerus (the upper part of the arm) can cause quite a lot of discomfort in the shoulder.

Sprains and strains:  A shoulder sprain is the stretching or tearing of ligaments that hold bones together. A shoulder strain is the stretching or tearing of muscles or tendons.

Brachial plexus injury: The brachial plexus is a complex network of nerves that send signals from your spine up to your shoulders and down the arms and hands. Injury is common is contact sports where the nerves are stretched or compressed, or in more serious cases, completely severed from the spine.

Polymyalgia rheumatica: An inflammatory disorder that results in stiffness and pain in the shoulder muscles. Occurs mostly in older patients, 65 and over.

Tendinitis: Another inflammatory disorder that affects the tendons. It is quite common in the shoulder and is the result of a number of reason. Some tendinitis problems include Tennis Elbow and Swimmer’s Shoulder.

Thoracic outlet syndrome: This is a disorder that occurs when the blood vessels and nerves between your collarbone and first rib are compressed causing pain in the shoulders, neck and fingers. This can be caused by repetitive strain or a high impact injury from sport or an accident.

As you can see there is a wide scope of causes for shoulder pain, some due to minor injury, some more serious.

Symptoms – when should you see a doctor or hand therapist?

Use your best judgement when assessing whether to seek medical assistance or not. It is always better to be on the safe side.

If your shoulder pain is acute or causing breathing difficulty, see a doctor immediately. Dislocation and intense swelling will require medical assistance right away, whereas mild discomfort, redness and swelling may require you to book in an appointment with a hand specialist if symptoms persist.


Mild symptoms of shoulder pain can be self-treated. Rest is the key: avoid using your shoulder in way that can cause pain or discomfort. Icing your shoulder 15-20 minutes a day can help reduce pain and swelling.

Surgical treatment

Surgical treatment may be required in extreme cases of shoulder pain. Your therapist can discuss with you and your GP and arrange a referral to a surgeon if required. If you have any questions regarding a condition you have or to book an appointment, feel free to contact us here. We’d be more than happy to help.