Know When to See a Doctor for Shoulder Pain

Updated December 07, 2022
A woman holds her shoulder in pain as she carries a laundry basket
Overview

Shoulder discomfort is common among older people, typically due to injury, arthritis, and even normal wear and tear from overuse. It can also affect younger people who participate in sports that involve overhead movements, especially swimming, racquet sports, and baseball. Often temporary rest and over-the-counter medication can 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, says Lee Diehl, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon with North Carolina Orthopaedic Clinic.

Overuse of Your Shoulder Can Lead to Soreness or Pain

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“Some shoulder pain is related to overuse or repetitive work,” said Dr. Diehl. “If you spend several hours painting, holding your arm overhead cleaning, or packing and moving your house, 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.

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"

Frozen Shoulder Can Improve with Exercise Regimen

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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, 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 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 Diehl. In certain cases, you may also get pain relief from a steroid injection.

When to Seek Immediate Help for Shoulder Pain

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“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. Diehl advised. 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 at several locations seven days a week. You'll have the convenience of fast service with no unnecessary exposure to sick people.
  • You can get an appointment for orthopaedic care within 24 hours at many of our locations. Depending on availability, you may be seen by a shoulder specialist the same day you call for an appointment.
  • 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.