Shoulder Pain Causes — Getting to the Bottom of That Unexplained Shoulder Pain
The shoulder is one of the most flexible and overused joints in the human body, and that makes it one of the most susceptible to injury. That’s because you use your shoulder for a wide range of movements and motions without even realizing it.
In fact, the shoulder is classified as a synovial ball-and-socket joint and offers multiaxial function and movement. In other words, your shoulder can move in any plane. All of that motion, flexibility, and looseness gives your shoulder its amazing range and function—but it also puts it at high risk for injury.
Here, we’ll examine key shoulder pain causes and how you can avoid and treat them.
The shoulder, like all joints, is a confluence of bones, muscles, ligaments, and tendons all working in unison to provide mobility, flexibility, and function. The shoulder joint is a ball-and-socket joint where the humerus and the scapula meet. The ball is made up of the medial anterior surface of the humerus. The socket is made of the glenoid cavity on the lateral scapula. The clavicle bone provides further stability and motion for the shoulder.
The group of four muscles surrounding the shoulder joint is called the rotator cuff. The rotator cuff provides strength, stability, and mobility. The shoulder joint also includes muscles, tendons, and ligaments attached to the back, neck, armpit, side, and chest.
With so many bones, muscles, ligaments, and tendons working together to provide flexibility, stability, and strength, it’s no wonder the shoulder is a high-risk area for injury. Now that you understand the basic anatomy, let’s look at some specific injuries and how to treat them.
Rotator Cuff Injuries
Rotator cuff injuries are among the leading shoulder pain causes. While these muscles aren’t responsible for the heavy lifting and performance of the shoulder, they are instrumental in the smooth rotation of the synovial ball in the joint socket. As such, there are three primary forms of rotator cuff injuries—tendonitis, bursitis, and tears.
Tendonitis occurs when the tendons of the rotator cuff become inflamed. Likewise, bursitis of the rotator cuff occurs when the bursa -- the fluid-filled space that facilitates joint movement -- becomes inflamed and limits mobility. Finally, tears occur when the tendons of the rotator cuff separate from the bone.
These injuries are most common among individuals who hyperextend their shoulder joint during use or activity. Athletes who forcefully throw, swing, or strike are at a greater risk for this injury than the general public.
Symptoms of rotator cuff injuries are most often felt on the outside of the shoulder. They are associated with deep, aching pain that tends to be worse at night. Stiffness and soreness in the shoulder limits mobility.
The use of a shoulder sling can aid treatment and rehabilitation of a rotator cuff injury. These braces aid in rehabilitation by immobilizing certain shoulder movement to allow the body to heal.
Most people associate the bicep with the lower and middle portion of the arm—it’s the primary muscle that bodybuilders love to show off. But the bicep plays a big role in shoulder function as well. Bicep tendonitis is an inflammation of the bicep tendon where it connects to the shoulder.
This pain is felt in the front of the shoulder and moves down the arm over the bicep muscle. One of the most common shoulder pain causes, bicep tendonitis typically afflicts individuals who engage in repetitive lifting and carrying or overhead actions. The repetitive stress on the bicep can cause inflammation in the tendon leading to tendonitis.
Rest, stabilizing braces, and physical therapy are the best non-invasive treatment options for bicep tendonitis.
Adhesive Capsulitis, or frozen shoulder, is an injury characterized by pain and stiffness on the outside of the shoulder joint. This highly common condition typically worsens over time and may be initially noticeable when you reach behind your head, neck, or back.
It’s called frozen shoulder for a reason—this injury limits mobility and causes the joint to stiffen, making it hard to move. In other words, freezing it. People with diabetes, an over or under-active thyroid, cardiovascular disease, tuberculosis, or Parkinson’s diseases are at an increased risk of developing a frozen shoulder injury.
While medical professionals aren’t totally clear about the frozen shoulder pain causes, the condition often emerges as a result of underuse or immobility of the shoulder. Treatment involves physical therapy, movement exercises, strength training, and shoulder abduction bracing.
SLAP tears, or Superior Labrum from Anterior to Posterior, refers to a specific type of labrum tear that occurs within the shoulder joint. The labrum is a circular rim of cartilage that deepens the socket of the shoulder joint and maintains proper movement and motion. When this cartilage tears, it can lead to deep shoulder pain and a sensation that the joint catches during regular movement. Sometimes, it can cause a popping sensation and sound during movement.
The most common causes of a SLAP tear are repetitive overhead actions like athletic throwing, catching, or striking; heavy overhead lifting; or falls that involve an outstretched hand or arm.
SLAP tears typically occur over time and get worse without treatment or rehab. The best remedy for slowly developing SLAP tears is rest and a supportive brace to provide stability, decrease inflammation, and improve joint function.
Protect Your Shoulder
Regardless of your injury type, the most common treatment and rehabilitation plans include a combination of rest, physical therapy, supportive wraps and braces, anti-inflammatories, and occasionally surgery.
No two injuries are alike. If you are experiencing worsening or acute shoulder pain, seek out professional medical advice right away. Your shoulder pain causes could indicate a more serious injury.