Shoulder Pain and Causes

The shoulder is such a complex part of the body that shoulder pain can be caused by many different things.

Last update: 02 June, 2020

The shoulder is a complex structure where several different tissues meet. For this joint to move properly, all the tissues need to work correctly and in a coordinated way. Even if just one of them has a problem, this can cause shoulder pain. Today, we’ll look at some of the most common causes.

The shoulder

To understand some of the causes of shoulder pain, we need to take a closer look at the structure of the shoulder. The shoulder consists of three bones, the humerus, shoulder blade, and clavicle. This all means that the shoulder can be affected by the arm, the back, or the upper part of the torso.

Then, to keep the humerus firmly in place in the shoulder blade cavity, there are a series of muscles and their corresponding tendons. Both this and the joint between the shoulder blade and clavicle have their respective joint capsules, which are there to cover, protect, stabilize, and lubricate the joints.

Lastly, there are also several ligaments that support the joints and help keep movements natural.

Shoulder pain

To make things even more complex, shoulder pain can be the result of external or referred pain. This is when another structure is injured but you feel the pain in your shoulder, even if it’s perfectly healthy.

Local pain

Let’s start by looking at the causes of shoulder pain that originate in the shoulder itself:

  • Tension in the neck muscles. People with poor posture may be over-stressing the muscles in the neck and upper torso. These include the muscles that are connected to the humerus or clavicle.
  • Direct injury to muscles or bones. Overtraining or a fall during training could injure any of these and cause pain.
  • Inflammation of the joint capsule. Inflammation of this soft tissue and the fluid inside it is called bursitis and can be due to repetitive movements when injured or maintaining poor posture. Another condition that relates to the joint capsule is “frozen shoulder”, which limits mobility.

  • Tendinitis. This is caused by overexertion or repetitive movements. The tendons become inflamed and hurt when used.
  • Joint instability. If you have a dislocated shoulder, meaning that the humerus comes out of the shoulder blade cavity, the surrounding tissues will weaken. This will make you more prone to partial dislocations. Dislocations are more obvious, but partial dislocations can cause pain without other obvious symptoms.
  • Arthritis and osteoarthritis. This is normally due to age and the body’s structures are more prone to suffer from these conditions. Wear and tear from continued use over several decades can end up affecting the joints, both inflaming them (arthritis) and shortening the space between them, causing friction (osteoarthrosis).
  • Cancer or infection. This is much less common, but it can also be a cause of shoulder pain.

Referred pain

If you’re suffering from shoulder pain but the shoulder seems to be fine and without injury, then the cause may be elsewhere:

  • Pain transmitted via a nerve. A problem in the nerves in the neck can cause shoulder pain as well as symptoms such as tingling in the hands.
  • Pain caused by internal organs. Heart, lung, or stomach conditions can all cause shoulder pain. If this the case, the pain won’t worsen when moving the joint.

Different diagnoses of shoulder pain

If you don’t know what might be causing your shoulder pain, it’s important to go and see a specialist. If necessary, a doctor will be able to carry out an X-ray or an MRI scan. An X-ray will help rule out bone problems, whilst an MRI scan will help detect any problems with the soft tissues.

On the other hand, you might also want to visit the physiotherapist. They’ll be able to carry out muscle and joint tests to find out if it’s something that they can help you with. If it’s a muscle condition, they’ll look to find out exactly which muscle is affected and how best to treat it.

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