Shoulder pain: Causes and treatment

9th October, 2019 • 3 min read

The shoulder is made up of three main bones:

  • the humerus (long arm bone)
  • the clavicle (collarbone)
  • the scapula (shoulder blade)

It’s a ball-and-socket joint which means the shoulder can move forward and backwards in a circular motion, and up and away from the body. In fact, the shoulder is the most mobile joint in the body.

Shoulder pain is usually caused by repetitive movements, playing sports, or heavy lifting. There are also some diseases that cause shoulder pain, such as gallbladder disease.

Shoulder pain is more common in people over the age of 60 because the soft tissue around the shoulder gets worn down with age.

In some cases, shoulder pain can be treated at home, but you may need to take medication or do physical therapy.

Treatment for shoulder pain

You can treat shoulder pain at home, but it may take at least 2 weeks for the pain to start to subside, and 4 to 6 weeks to fully recover.

To improve shoulder pain, you should:

  • remain active and gently move your shoulder
  • improve your posture (stand straight with your shoulders gently back)
  • put a cushion behind your lower back when sitting
  • rest your arm on a cushion in your lap when you are sitting down

Usually a doctor may advise taking painkillers such as paracetamol to help relieve the pain. Speak to a pharmacist or doctor for further guidance before taking any painkillers.

To prevent shoulder pain from getting worse, don’t:

  • immobilise your arm or shoulder
  • do things that increase the pain
  • lift heavy weights or do strenuous activities
  • slouch when sitting

A pharmacist may be able to recommend pain relief remedies (tablets, creams, heat and cold packs) or suggest you see a doctor if needed.

If the pain does not improve after 2 weeks, it is difficult to move your shoulder or arm, or if the pain started after an injury or accident, you should visit a doctor. They will be able to determine the cause of the pain or refer you for further tests.

If the cause is known they can recommend treatment, including:

  • stronger medication
  • physiotherapy
  • things to avoid
  • seeing a specialist

Causes of shoulder pain

If you have pain and stiffness in your shoulder that doesn’t go away over months or years, it could be:

If you experience pain that gets worse when you use your arm or shoulder, possible causes include:

If your shoulder is tingling, numb, weak, or feels like it is clicking or locking, it might be:

  • shoulder instability
  • hypermobility

If you suddenly have severe pain and it’s difficult or impossible to move your arm, or it’s changed shape, then you may have:

  • dislocated your shoulder
  • broken a bone
  • torn or ruptured a tendon

If the pain emanates from the top of your shoulder, this may be due to problems in the acromioclavicular joint, for example, stretched or torn ligaments.

When to worry about shoulder pain

You should seek more urgent help if:

  • you experience sudden or severe pain
  • you are unable to move your arm
  • your arm or shoulder has changed shape or is badly swollen
  • you have persistent pins and needles
    -your arm or shoulder is numb
  • your arm or shoulder is hot or cold to touch

These symptoms might be a sign or something more serious, such as a broken or dislocated bone.

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.