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Common causes of chronic shoulder pain

Last Modified: February 13, 2024

Family Medicine, Diseases & Disorders

shoulder pain

This post was written by Sherise Deardorff, PA, PPG – Orthopedics.

Your shoulder is made up of several bones, tendons and muscles to give your arm a full range of motion. So, when you start to feel pain in your shoulder, many different parts and pieces could be causing you pain. If your shoulder pain has been present for at least six months, then it is classified as chronic. Let’s take a look at the most common causes of chronic shoulder pain and ways to manage it.

Common causes of chronic shoulder pain

While there are many different causes of chronic shoulder pain, these are the most common ones we see and treat.

  • Osteoarthritis. This is the breakdown of articular cartilage. Shoulder osteoarthritis can be found in two different areas of the shoulder: the glenohumeral joint (the ball and socket) or the acromioclavicular joint (the top of the shoulder).
  • Rotator cuff tear and/or rotator cuff arthropathy. The rotator cuff is comprised of four muscles that surround your ball and socket shoulder joint. These muscles can be torn from injury or overuse. Additionally, patients can also develop arthritis (rotator cuff arthropathy) or arthritic changes from large, long-standing rotator cuff tears.
  • Bursitis/tendonitis. Bursa is a fluid-filled sac that helps cushion the space between bones and connective tissue. Shoulder bursitis (subacromial bursitis) is the inflammation of the bursa sac that sits beneath the acromion (the highest point of the shoulder blade). Shoulder tendonitis is inflammation of the rotator cuff tendon.
  • Adhesive capsulitis. Sometimes called frozen shoulder, this is a painful condition that limits movement in the shoulder. It occurs when the soft tissue surrounding the shoulder joint becomes thick, stiff and inflamed. Frozen shoulder is characterized by functional loss of active and passive range of motion.
  • Shoulder instability. This occurs when the shoulder joint is able to move completely or partially out of socket. Typically, a result of stretched, torn or detached ligaments or labrum. 

Symptoms and diagnosis

The main symptom of many of these shoulder conditions is pain. Your shoulder pain may be deep in the shoulder joint, in the back or front of the shoulder, or even in the upper arm. Shoulder pain may be dull, sharp or feel like something is catching. Other common symptoms of a shoulder condition are decreased motion or weakness of the shoulder or upper arm.

Treatments for shoulder pain

For relief of chronic discomfort, you can explore:

  • Anti-inflammatories (over-the-counter or prescription)
  • Topical rubs
  • Heat
  • Ice
  • Shoulder injections
  • Shoulder strengthening exercises (done at home or with physical therapy)
  • Activity modification

When to see your provider

If your shoulder pain is starting to affect your activities of daily living or begins to negatively affect your life, it’s time to bring it up with your provider. Additionally, if your shoulder pain continues to worsen, or if there are any signs of infection associated with your pain, you should call your provider.

To schedule orthopedic care in Allen County, call Ortho NorthEast at 260-297-3607 or click to request an appointment. To find orthopedic care outside of Allen County, including the new PPG – Orthopedics location in Peru, click to view PPG - Orthopedics locations.


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