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What’s Causing Your Shoulder Pain? 9 Common Causes

The Clearing Team
The Clearing Team

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When you live with shoulder pain, simple tasks like getting dressed and brushing your hair can feel close to impossible. Daily activities from taking out the garbage to hugging your kids can instantly trigger sharp pains or lingering stiffness. Any job that requires lifting or making repetitive movements can be more difficult when your shoulder is giving you persistent discomfort. 

Shoulder pain is not uncommon. The group of muscles, bones, tendons and joints that meet at the base of your neck and the top of your bicep has a lot of moving parts, to say the least. The dynamic, nearly nonstop nature of everyday shoulder movement makes the area uniquely vulnerable to injury. As many as one percent of adults annually consult with their general practitioner about a brand new instance of shoulder pain. What’s more, it’s estimated that shoulder pain is the third most common reason that people seek care for their muscles and bones.  

Your shoulder pain can be caused by an injury to any of the three bones, two joints, soft tissue or multiple muscles that join at the shoulder. It can also be caused by age-related conditions, such as arthritis. Shoulder pain can also be a sign of a pinched nerve or tight muscle in the neck, and rarely (but important to be aware of), left side shoulder pain can be a sign of an impending heart attack.

With so many possible causes, it can be difficult to narrow down the source of your pain. Finding out what’s causing your shoulder pain is the first step toward finding a treatment that works for you. 

This article will cover some of the most common shoulder injuries as well as how you can get treatment and relief. We will discuss:

  • What are some of the most common shoulder conditions?
  • What are some surprising causes of shoulder pain?
  • Should you try to treat your shoulder pain yourself? 
  • How do you know if you need to see a doctor?

What are some of the most common shoulder conditions? 

Some shoulder injuries and conditions are minor and can be treated at home. Other injuries require help from a medical professional. 

Frozen shoulder 

A “frozen shoulder” is an inflammatory condition that affects your shoulder joint. The inflammation gradually increases until your range of motion becomes restricted and you feel like you can’t rotate your shoulder. A diagnosis of “frozen shoulder” typically requires symptoms of stiffness and pain lasting for three months or more. Frozen shoulder is more common if you have had diabetes, a prior stroke, or another type of shoulder injury in the past. 


Tendons are thick, collagen-containing tissues that attach your muscles to your bones. Shoulder tendonitis is caused by inflammation in your rotator cuff or in your bicep tendon. This can happen when your tendon is pinched or trapped under the top bone of your shoulder, called the scapula. Tendonitis is marked by soreness in your shoulder, stiffness and limited range of motion. If you are a swimmer, a weight-lifter, or a baseball or tennis player, you will be more likely to develop shoulder tendonitis. 

Torn rotator cuff

The rotator cuff tendon can tear as a result of overuse or repetitive movements. Pain from a rotator cuff tear usually comes from the front of your shoulder and radiates down into your side arm. You may also feel pain when you try to lift things or reach up over your head. 

Athletes and people with physically demanding jobs are more likely to experience a torn rotator cuff, but it also happens frequently as people grow older. Your rotator cuff can tear and not cause symptoms, or the tear can be painful and sometimes require surgical repair.


The bursae are tiny sacs of fluid that work as a cushion. Bursae in your shoulder reduce the friction between your joints, muscles, and bones as you move the joint throughout your daily activities. 

When bursae become inflamed, it causes bursitis. Overuse of the joint can lead to this inflammation. Shoulder bursitis may start as an acute condition but develop into something chronic, so it should be diagnosed and treated by a professional. 

Fractured shoulder 

A fractured shoulder can refer to a break in any of the bones in your shoulder. Your clavicle, scapula, or humerus bones may be affected. The pain it causes might be hot, sharp and radiating. 

A fractured shoulder can be caused by an injury, accident or blow to the shoulder area. In most cases, shoulder fractures can be treated without surgery, but you will still need to immobilize your arm while you heal. In cases where a fracture causes displacement, surgery is required. Even after the fracture heals, shoulder pain may not always go away completely, resulting in chronic shoulder pain. 


Nearly every type of arthritis can impact your shoulder and cause pain. Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are two of the more common types of arthritis that could be leading to pain and loss of mobility. If you have pain in both of your shoulders, it could be a sign that arthritis is the cause. 

What are some surprising causes of shoulder pain?  

Shoulder pain is not always caused by a recent injury. Other chronic and acute conditions can cause shoulder pain, and some of the causes might surprise you. 

Referred Pain 

The shoulder is a common location for referred pain, which is when pain in one part of the body is caused by injury in another part of your body. Below are some examples of referred pain. 


Shoulder pain on your left side can be a warning sign of an underlying cardiac problem. Cardiac events are also often associated with other symptoms such as sweating, shortness of breath and heart palpitations. Pain that suggests cardiac involvement tends to start in your chest area and radiates sharply out to your abdomen, left shoulder and arm. If you suspect cardiac pain, you should seek medical assistance right away.


Pain located between your shoulder blades, as well as pain in your right shoulder, can be caused by gallstones that are blocking your bile ducts. This pain may appear suddenly and feel severe. In cases where gallstones are causing a blockage, your doctor may prescribe medication to help the stones dissolve. Surgery is also often needed to remove gallstones. 

Pinched nerve in the neck

A pinched nerve in your neck, also known as cervical radiculopathy, can cause sharp pain and tingling in your upper arm and shoulder. This radiating pain comes from the roots of damaged nerves, and it can be temporary or develop into a chronic condition. A pinched nerve can be caused by an injury to your neck, or it can develop along with arthritis as the result of normal wear-and-tear on your body as you age.

A pinched nerve in your neck is considered common, and can typically be treated with pain relief medication along with physical therapy to help the injured nerve to heal. In some cases where pain becomes chronic, surgery may be recommended. 

Upper trapezius muscle spasm

The trapezius muscles extend from the bottom of your neck to the middle of your back. These muscles are used when sitting up straight, turning your neck and moving your shoulders up and down. Spasms in the upper part of the trapezius muscles are an extremely common cause of shoulder pain.  

Upper trapezius muscle spasms may be caused by fatigue or muscle overuse. These spasms can also be the result of a nutritional deficiency (like low levels of magnesium or potassium). Muscle spasms may be treated at home with pain relief ointments, nutraceuticals or heat therapy. Muscle spasms that cause shoulder pain and occur frequently should be addressed by your doctor. 

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Should you try to treat your shoulder pain yourself? 

There are some home remedies for shoulder pain that you might want to consider. But in general, you shouldn’t try to self-treat shoulder pain if you’re not sure of the cause. Because of the wide range of possible causes, ranging from mild to life-threatening, it’s best to actually know what’s going on in your body before you try to treat your shoulder pain. 

Treatments for acute or chronic shoulder pain may include: 

  • Resting your shoulder
  • Icing the affected joint
  • Heat therapy with a warm compress or heating pad
  • Home exercise to increase mobility
  • Nutritional supplements 
  • Over-the-counter oral pain relievers, such as NSAIDs
  • Over-the-counter topical pain relievers, such as Bengay and IcyHot
  • Lifestyle changes

If home treatment doesn’t work, your doctor will have some advice (and maybe a prescription or two) to get relief. You may have to go through some diagnostic testing before you are able to get a treatment plan. 

Treatments may include: 

  • Prescription-strength pain relievers (topical or oral)
  • Physical therapy 
  • Corticosteroid injections 
  • Surgery 

How do you know if you need to see a doctor? 

There are some circumstances where you shouldn’t wait to see if your shoulder pain goes away on its own. 

You should always seek medical assistance right away if you experience any of the following symptoms along with shoulder pain: 

  • Heart palpitations 
  • Chest pains
  • Intense sweating 
  • Fatigue or exhaustion
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Fever, chills or recent weight loss 

How can Clearing help with chronic shoulder pain? 

It’s not always easy to locate the cause of shoulder pain. Sometimes the pain is due to a recent injury, while other times it’s a signal of a larger underlying health issue. Whatever the cause, it’s best to seek out treatment from professionals. 

At Clearing, you’re in good hands: our medical team consulted with the nation’s leading pain management doctors to bring you opioid-free pain relief. Find out more today.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your individual needs and medical conditions.