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Shoulder pain - What is shoulder pain?

BMJ Group Medical Reference


A painful shoulder can make even simple tasks difficult to do. You might find it hard to use your arm or your hand. But getting the right treatment can help.

We've brought together the best research about shoulder pain and weighed up the evidence about how to treat it. You can use our information to talk to your doctor and decide which treatments are best for you.

Shoulder pain is any pain in or around your shoulder joint. You may feel the pain most when you reach behind your back or overhead. There are many reasons why you may get a painful shoulder.

The most common cause of shoulder pain is a problem with the tendons (cords of tissue) that attach your shoulder muscles (rotator cuff muscles) to the bone of your upper arm. More than 6 in 10 people who have shoulder pain also have problems with their tendons.[1]

shoulder-pain-illustration_default.jpgFour tendons called rotator cuff tendons hold your shoulder joint in place. Your shoulder is the most flexible joint in your body. But its wide range of movement also means that it’s easy to injure your shoulder. You can get pain if your rotator cuff tendons get damaged or swollen, or if there are changes in the bone around them.

  • Sometimes your tendons get trapped under the bony arch in your shoulder. This pinching can damage your tendons, causing inflammation.

  • Your shoulder can become weak as you get older, or because of an injury.

  • A repeated activity, such as throwing a ball or heavy lifting, can also damage your tendons or make them tender.

  • If a rotator cuff tendon tears, your injury will be more serious.

There are some other reasons why you may get shoulder pain.

  • You have a frozen shoulder that is painful and hard to move. You may also hear this called adhesive capsulitis. It can happen if you don't use your shoulder after an injury, causing it to stiffen up. Women, older people, and people who've had shoulder surgery are more likely to get a frozen shoulder.[2] You're also more likely to get it if you have a medical condition such as diabetes or if you've had a stroke.

  • You have calcific tendonitis, which means you have calcium salt deposits in a tendon. This kind of shoulder pain mostly starts suddenly and usually affects women.

  • You have arthritis in the joints around your shoulder.[3]

  • You have neck problems, such as a pinched nerve. Doctors call this referred pain, because the pain is caused by a problem in one part of your body (your neck), but you feel the pain in another area (your shoulder).



Arthritis is when your joints become inflamed, making them stiff and painful. There are different kinds of arthritis. Osteoarthritis is the most common type. It happens when the cartilage at the end of your bones becomes damaged and then starts to grow abnormally. Rheumatoid arthritis happens because your immune system attacks the lining of your joints.


Diabetes is a condition that causes too much sugar (glucose) to circulate in the blood. It happens when the body stops making a hormone called insulin (type 1 diabetes) or when insulin stops working (type 2 diabetes).


Inflammation is when your skin or some other part of your body becomes red, swollen, hot, and sore. Inflammation happens because your body is trying to protect you from germs, from something that's in your body and could harm you (like a splinter) or from things that cause allergies (these things are called allergens). Inflammation is one of the ways in which your body heals an infection or an injury.


You have a stroke when the blood supply to a part of your brain is cut off. This damages your brain and can cause symptoms like weakness or numbness on one side of your body. You may also find it hard to speak if you've had a stroke.

For more terms related to Shoulder pain


For references related to Shoulder pain click here.
Last Updated: August 23, 2013
This information does not replace medical advice.  If you are concerned you might have a medical problem please ask your Boots pharmacy team in your local Boots store, or see your doctor.
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