What’s Behind Your Shoulder Pain?

Shoulder pain is the third most common problem treated by physicians, with 18-26% of all adults suffering from shoulder pain on any given day. And though the pain is bad enough, shoulder problems often take athletes out of the game and require time away from work.

Many of our patients at Pennsylvania Orthopedic Associates develop shoulder pain due to an acute athletic injury, a fall, or an overuse injury. You’re especially at risk for overuse problems when you engage in activities that involve repetitive overhead movements.

It’s important to be aware of the conditions most likely to cause shoulder pain. When you know the symptoms, you’ll also know when you should get prompt medical care to ensure your shoulder heals and regains optimal strength.

Potential causes of your shoulder pain

These conditions are often behind shoulder pain for many of our patients:

Rotator cuff tears

Your rotator cuff consists of four muscles and their associated tendons, a vital group of soft tissues that hold your upper arm in the shoulder socket and support the full range of shoulder movement. You can partially or completely tear the tendons during an acute injury, but in most cases, rotator cuff tears develop over time as a result of repetitive use.

An acute injury is easy to recognize because you’ll feel sudden, intense pain. Gradual overuse damage leading to a rotator cuff tear begins with mild pain that intensifies as you continue to use your shoulder. The symptoms include pain when lifting your arm and feeling too weak to use your arm. Over time, you’ll continue to have pain even when you’re at rest.

Shoulder impingement and rotator cuff tendonitis

Rotator cuff problems frequently cause shoulder pain even if you haven’t suffered a tear because the tissues are prone to inflammatory problems such as tendonitis and shoulder impingement, which occurs when your rotator cuff tendons rub against the shoulder blade.

These conditions cause swelling and tenderness in the front of your shoulder. When they go untreated, you may develop pain radiating from the shoulder to your arm, loss of strength and motion, and difficulty reaching up and behind your back.


Your shoulder joint can develop osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and rotator cuff tear arthropathy, a type of arthritis that’s unique to the shoulder joint.

Osteoarthritis is a wear-and-tear condition that develops as years of using your shoulder gradually wear away cartilage covering the ends of the bones. As cartilage erodes, the bones rub together, creating pain, stiffness, inflammation, and bone spurs.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition in which your immune system attacks the synovial tissues surrounding the joint. As a result, the tissues become inflamed, causing pain and limiting your movement.

Rotator cuff tear arthropathy develops when you have an ongoing, untreated rotator cuff tear. The weakened tendon can’t control arm movement properly, allowing the top of the arm bone to move upward and rub the shoulder blade, eventually causing arthritis. The combination of the tear and arthritis typically leads to severe pain and such weakness that you can’t lift your arm.


Your shoulder is the most movable joint in your body, which also makes it more likely to dislocate. You can suffer a partial or complete shoulder dislocation when the upper arm bone comes out of the shoulder socket. Both types of dislocation cause intense pain, swelling, and an obviously deformed shoulder.

A shoulder dislocation can be further complicated by torn ligaments, muscles, and tendons, as well as damaged nerves. Without immediate treatment and comprehensive rehabilitation, a shoulder dislocation increases your chance of ongoing shoulder instability and repeated dislocations.

When to see a doctor for shoulder pain

Persistent shoulder pain should never be ignored. Continuing to use a damaged shoulder only leads to more serious problems like progressive weakness, loss of motion, and chronic shoulder instability.

Give us a call any time you have a question about shoulder pain. Otherwise, consider scheduling an appointment at Pennsylvania Orthopedic Associates when your shoulder is too stiff to allow the full range of motion, it feels like it could come out of its socket, or you lack the shoulder strength to perform your normal daily activities.

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