Why Do I Have Shoulder Pain?


Smiling senior woman in a gym sitting down and working out while lifting both of her arms

Depending on the issue, shoulder pain can range from a chronic dull ache to intense sharp pain, often associated with certain movements. Whether your pain is chronically achy or sometimes very intense, shoulder pain can make it very difficult to perform the most basic tasks, including reaching for an item, getting dressed, or lifting a bag of groceries. 

If you are having bothersome shoulder pain, it’s essential to seek medical treatment to find the issue and get it resolved as quickly as possible. Here are a few reasons you might have shoulder pain and what you can do about it.

Anatomy of the Shoulder

First, it’s important to understand what your shoulder is made up of if you’re experiencing shoulder pain. The shoulder joint is often referred to as a ball and socket joint. This label describes how the shoulder joint is formed from the bony knob of the upper arm bone (humerus) nestled within the shoulder blade (scapula). This formation is fairly loose, thus giving the shoulder a wide range of motion. However, it also makes the joint more susceptible to injury. The shoulder joint is also attached to the clavicle bones that radiate out from both sides of the breastbone through a series of muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Some of these muscles and tendons comprise the rotator cuff, which assists in providing support and a wide range of motion to the shoulder. Other important shoulder components include the bursa, which are small fluid-filled sacs that cushion and protect the rotator cuff, and the labrum, which is a cuff of cartilage shaped into the form of a cup. The labrum is where the bony knob of the humerus bone resides within the shoulder blade.

Types of Shoulder Pain 

Depending on the injury, shoulder pain may come on gradually and increase over time. The act type of pain a person has can vary as well. An achy pain that occurs with certain movements, such as reaching above the head, is a common occurrence with shoulder pain. Some people also report grinding or popping noises emanating from the shoulder area. Others report an increase in pain during sleep, to the point where they cannot rest comfortably. If left untreated, it is not uncommon for shoulder pain to cause enough pain and stiffness and decrease mobility to the point where an individual cannot lift their arm above their head.

What’s Causing the Pain?

A few different things could be the cause of your shoulder pain, so it’s important to find out exactly what’s causing it. Sometimes shoulder pain may occur from simple overuse. With rest, some NSAIDs, and an ice pack, an individual experiencing this type of shoulder pain will recover fairly quickly. Other types of shoulder pain, especially chronic shoulder pain, may occur from arthritis in the shoulder. Some may experience sudden pain from a blunt force shoulder injury, or the pain may come on more gradually over a period of time. Especially with more intense pain, it’s essential to receive a proper diagnosis to determine if the pain is from a rotator cuff tear, a case of tendonitis (tendon inflammation), or a bout of bursitis (inflammation of the bursa sacs). 

Shoulder Pain Treatments 

The cause of your shoulder pain will affect the type of treatment you need to help it. With simple shoulder pain from overuse, the RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) treatment method may be all an individual requires to resolve their issue. Patients who experience chronic pain from arthritis may benefit from NSAIDs, hot compresses, massage/acupuncture, strengthening key muscles to provide proper support of the shoulder, and supplements such as vitamin D, ginger, and turmeric, reducing pain and inflammation. Even if an individual is experiencing an injury such as a torn rotator cuff, bursitis, or tendonitis, it doesn’t necessarily mean surgery is their only option. 

A physical therapist in NEPA can help all types of individuals experiencing shoulder pain. If a person is physically active but continues to experience bouts of shoulder pain, it could be that they have shoulder weakness and can benefit from the strengthening of key muscles. For more specific injuries such as tendonitis, bursitis, or a rotator cuff injury, physical therapists can help reduce pain with massage and acupressure, followed by gentle stretching exercises designed to increase their range of motion gradually. As a patient improves, a physical therapist can assign key exercises designed to strengthen and support key muscle groups surrounding the shoulder. If a patient does require surgery, PTs can help with post-operative care by gently stretching muscles, reducing pain, increasing range of motion, and eventually strengthening the shoulder area.

Start Physical Therapy Today

If you have any type of consistent shoulder pain, whether it’s mild or severe, physical therapy can help make a big difference. At Cawley Physical Therapy, we can create a personalized treatment plan that helps treat the cause of your shoulder pain. We know that dealing with shoulder pain can cause you to give up doing things you love or make it hard to do everyday tasks without causing more pain, which is why we’re here to help. Physical therapy is also a great choice for those looking to help prevent pain from occurring in the first place, so even if you aren’t experiencing pain, preventative physical therapy is still a valuable resource.

Contact Cawley Physical Therapy today to learn more about how physical therapy can help you.