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Treating Common Shoulder Injuries & Pain Conditions

The shoulder joints are some of the most frequently used joints in your body. The shoulder is also the joint with the most mobility and range of motion. Our doctors and surgeons with University Orthopaedic Services at University of Utah Health provide exceptional care, cutting-edge therapies, and a wide range of surgical and non-surgical treatments to help patients experiencing shoulder pain.

What Does Shoulder Pain Mean?

Shoulder pain could be related to any of the joints, ligaments, muscles, and tendons in the shoulder that work together to move your arms. These include your:

  • upper arm bone (humerus),
  • shoulder blade (scapula),
  • collarbone (clavicle), and
  • shoulder socket (glenoid).

Muscles, tendons, and ligaments in the rotator cuff connect the upper arm bone to the shoulder blade and keep it inside the socket. This gives you a wide range of motion in your arms, which also creates more opportunities for problems with connective tissues and bones in and around your shoulder.

If you experience shoulder pain that worsens, lasts more than four weeks, or does not improve with time, it may be time to see an orthopedic doctor.

Shoulder Pain Causes

People experience shoulder pain from a variety of conditions or injuries such as:

  • Arthritis Shoulder arthritis can develop as a result of wear and tear over time from acute injuries or conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Fractures The collarbone, upper arm, or shoulder blade could all experience a fracture (cracked or broken bone). This is most often caused by a fall, accident, or sports-related contact.
  • Tendon damage Tendons are small cord-like connectors between your muscles and bones. Tendon damage can occur from acute injuries like throwing a ball or chronic injuries such as a degenerative disease.
  • Inflammation Shoulder inflammation occurs with soft tissues, tendons, or ligament damage. Pain associated with inflammation can lead to restricted mobility in the shoulder and difficulty performing basic movements.
  • Instability — In order for your shoulder to remain stable, the top of your upper arm bone must be securely held inside the shoulder socket with tendons. Shoulder instability occurs when it comes out of the socket (dislocates) partially or fully.
  • Other conditions
    • Nerve problems,
    • Tumors,
    • Infections, or
    • Disk herniation (ruptured cushioning in the neck that can cause arm or shoulder pain)

Find a Shoulder Specialist

Types of Shoulder Pain

With so many different moving parts inside and around the shoulder, it can be difficult to distinguish whether shoulder pain is in the joint or the muscle. Most shoulder pain requires a consultation with an orthopedic specialist who can review your symptoms, order imaging tests, and diagnose what is happening.

The most common types of shoulder pain include:

Shoulder Pain Diagnosis

At your initial appointment, your doctor will ask how and when the pain started, and what treatments (if any) you have already tried. If you previously had imaging for your shoulder injury, bring that to your appointment. However, your doctor may still recommend additional imaging to compare with the older imaging results.

During the examination, your doctor will:

  • look for swelling or deformities,
  • observe the range of motion in your joint, and
  • check around the joint for weakness or tenderness.

For many shoulder injuries, the doctor will also order tests such as:

  • X-ray This identifies fractures or bone injuries.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) An advanced imaging technology that looks at the ligaments, tendons, and other soft tissues around your shoulder.
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan This imaging scan gives a more detailed view of the bones.
  • Diagnostic arthroscopy A simple surgical procedure that inserts a fiber-optic camera into the joint to see damage that may not be evident from other imaging tests.

Shoulder Pain Treatment

Treatment for shoulder pain depends on the type and severity of your shoulder injury, which can include:

  • Cortisone injections — A non-invasive treatment to relieve shoulder pain. We will perform ultrasound-guided injections in several areas of the shoulder to reduce the risk of arthritis.
  • Physical therapy Your doctor will prescribe shoulder pain exercises and stretches for shoulder pain to regain strength and range of motion resulting from a chronic or degenerative condition.
  • Shoulder arthroscopy surgeryThis minimally invasive shoulder surgery repairs damage that cannot be treated with physical therapy alone.
  • Shoulder replacement surgeryThis is a more invasive procedure to replace the entire shoulder joint if necessary.

In addition to the treatments above, your doctor may recommend modifying activities to avoid damaging or re-injuring your shoulder. He or she may also recommend rest and anti-inflammatory medication (NSAIDs) to relieve your pain.

Shoulder Pain Exercises at Home

Your physical therapist may give you shoulder pain exercises to do at home to:

  • stretch and strengthen the muscles and tendons in your shoulder.
  • improve your posture.
  • teach you proper movement for everyday activities.

Before you do any of these exercises at home, perform them with your physical therapist to ensure correct movement. If any movements cause pain, talk to him or her about making adjustments.

Stretching exercises may include:

  • anterior (front) shoulder stretches,
  • posterior (back) shoulder stretches,
  • wall stretches,
  • pendulum exercises, or
  • towel or banded stretches.

Strengthening exercises may also include:

  • banded internal and external rotations,
  • wall push-ups,
  • isometric (holding and contracting the muscle in a specific position) shoulder exercises,
  • arm reaches, or
  • shoulder blade retractions (drawing back).

Schedule an Appointment with One of Our Orthopedic Specialists

Many shoulder injuries will get worse if they are not treated. Prolonging treatment could result in a longer recovery or injuries that cannot be easily or completely fixed. 

We are always accepting new patients, so primary care doctors and other physicians can send referrals to our doctors at University Orthopaedic Services. Patients can also schedule a consultation directly by calling 801-587-7109.

When to See an Orthopedic Doctor

If you're suffering from shoulder or elbow pain, you may not know when it's appropriate to seek out a specialist for pain relief. Learn how to spot the signs of severe or prolonged pain that can't be remedied at home.

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