Know When to See a Doctor for Shoulder Pain

Updated October 31, 2023
A woman holds her shoulder in pain as she carries a laundry basket

Shoulder discomfort is common among older people, typically due to injury, arthritis, and normal wear and tear from overuse. It can also affect younger people who participate in sports that involve overhead movements, especially swimming, racquet sports like pickleball or tennis, and baseball. If not addressed, shoulder discomfort can lead to more serious rotator cuff issues such as labral or SLAP tears. Temporary rest, over-the-counter medication, or physical therapy often provide some relief. Seek medical care for ongoing pain, or if you hear a pop or experience a tearing sensation resulting in a loss of function, said Christopher Klifto MD, an orthopaedic surgeon at Duke Health.

Signs of Shoulder Injury

Other signs that you have a shoulder injury that may require medical attention include:

  • Intense and ongoing shoulder pain
  • Stiffness or pain with shoulder movement
  • Weakness in the arm
  • Numbness in the arm and/or hand
  • Limited or reduced motion
  • A misshaped shoulder joint
  • Swelling in the shoulder
  • Feeling as though the shoulder socket is loose
  • Trauma to the shoulder

Overuse of Your Shoulder Can Lead to Soreness or Pain

“Some shoulder pain is related to overuse or repetitive work,” said Dr. Klifto . “If you spend several hours doing a new activity, or if you start a new exercise routine and experience soreness, give yourself some time to recover.” Use ice or a bag of frozen vegetables on the sore area of the shoulder for 15 to 20 minutes several times a day, gently stretch and keep the joint moving, and consider taking over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen. You can alternate ice with heat to ease symptoms.

More serious overuse injuries may require a visit to a shoulder specialist for treatment. Examples include:

  • Painful bursitis, an inflammation of the bursa (the sac that reduces friction around the joint)
  • Shoulder impingement, when the structures of the shoulder pinch or rub painfully against each other
  • A loss of motion that gets worse, often called "frozen shoulder"
  • Rotator cuff tears that causes pain and decreased strength 
  • Shoulder arthritis that results in decreased motion, pain, and grinding of the shoulder

Frozen Shoulder Can Improve with Exercise Regimen

Frozen shoulder can be caused by a thickening or tightening of the joint capsule and connective tissue that holds the shoulder together. It can occur from severe inflammation, from overuse, when illness or surgery keeps you from moving your arm for an extended time, or as a result of minor trauma. Women and people with diabetes or hypothyroidism tend to be at higher risk for frozen shoulder.

Pain and stiffness from frozen shoulder can last weeks to months, and not all frozen shoulders are the same. However, “a majority of people will still get better with time, education about their problem, and a home exercise program to improve the way their shoulder muscles work together,” said Dr. Klifto. In certain cases, you may also get pain relief from a steroid injection.

When to Seek Immediate Help for Shoulder Pain

“If you fall, have a significant strain injury, and/or feel a pop or tearing sensation in your shoulder and then have weakness lifting your arm, seek medical care,” Dr. Klifto advised. “Pain that has been present for months without improvement with activity modification also warrants a visit with a shoulder specialist.” A severe shoulder injury such as a fracture or dislocation requires immediate medical attention and may need to be evaluated in the emergency room. Depending on the nature of your injury, other treatment options include:

  • Duke Orthopaedic Urgent Care, which provides orthopaedic-specific treatment seven days a week. You'll have the convenience of fast service with no unnecessary exposure to sick people.
  • You can get a same-day or next-day appointment for orthopaedic care at many of our locations.  
  • In some cases, you may need surgery to ultimately restore function and feel better. Schedule an appointment with a Duke shoulder specialist to learn more about treatment options
Learn More About
Shoulder Pain and Injuries