elderly man discussing  shoulder pain with doctor

What Doctor to See for Shoulder & Elbow Pain

Shoulder and elbow pain are some of the most common aches and pains people experience. Since the shoulder and elbow joints are also some of the most frequently used in your body, pain and injuries in these joints can significantly impact your daily life. However, many people aren’t sure what doctor to see for these types of pain or even when to see a doctor.

Orthopedic doctors are specialists who treat shoulder and elbow pain. An orthopedic specialist can examine your shoulder or elbow and order imaging studies like X-rays, MRIs, or ultrasounds. He or she will identify what kind of pain you are experiencing, as well as what treatments will help.

Our orthopedic specialists at University of Utah Health can diagnose and treat your elbow and shoulder pain as well as your injuries. Our physicians offer surgical and non-surgical treatments to get you back to your normal activities.

When to See a Doctor

Shoulder and elbow pain can either be the result of a sudden fall or injury or come on slowly from wear and tear on the joints. The cause of the pain or injury will determine when you should see an orthopedic doctor and when home remedies for shoulder or elbow pain are appropriate.

If you have any of the following symptoms, schedule an appointment to see an orthopedic doctor as soon as possible.

  • Limited range of motion; for example, you cannot lift your arm above your head or cannot bend or straighten your elbow
  • Dull or achy pain when you move your elbow or shoulder
  • Pain when using your elbow or shoulder
  • Pain in the elbow or shoulder when you are at rest
  • Difficulty sleeping because of shoulder or elbow pain
  • Numbness or tingling in your arm or shoulder
  • Weakness that gets increasingly worse
  • Ongoing or worsening pain that develops over time 

For many injuries, early treatment and intervention will help avoid more extensive damage. It could also improve the trajectory for healing.

When to Schedule Your Appointment

You should see an orthopedic doctor if your elbow or shoulder pain

  • lasts more than four weeks,
  • does not start feeling better within two to four weeks, or
  • gets progressively worse day to day or week to week.

When to Go to the ER or Urgent Care

If your shoulder or elbow pain is severe and is the result of a sudden injury you should go to an urgent care or emergency room (ER) right away.

Urgent Care for Shoulder & Elbow Pain

Urgent care is best for shoulder injuries that require the immediate attention of a medical professional, but are not a life- or limb-threatening emergency. Go to an urgent care after a traumatic fall or injury, or when:

  • shoulder or elbow pain suddenly gets worse,
  • you are unable to move your arm,
  • you have extreme pain at the site of the injury,
  • there is noticeable swelling or bruising in and around the shoulder or elbow,
  • your shoulder or elbow is dislocated, or
  • your shoulder or elbow has an obvious deformity

Urgent care doctors can stabilize your shoulder or elbow, then refer you to an orthopedic doctor for follow-up care, including physical therapy, non-surgical treatments like cortisone injections, or surgery if required. 

When to Go to the Emergency Room

Call 911 or go to the emergency room for an elbow or shoulder injury with severe bleeding, or broken bones that have broken through the skin.

Shoulder pain could also be a sign of a heart attack. Call 911 or go to the emergency room immediately if your shoulder pain:

  • is sudden or sharp,
  • is accompanied by dizziness,
  • is accompanied by shortness of breath,
  • extends from your chest to the left jaw, arm, or neck
  • is accompanied by chest pain or chest tightness.

Find a Shoulder or Elbow Specialist

Home Remedies for Shoulder Pain & Elbow Pain

Sometimes you may experience mild pain or tweak your shoulder or elbow while working out, playing sports, or doing chores around the house. These circumstances mean you can treat your shoulder or elbow at home before going to see a doctor. The best home remedies for elbow and shoulder pain are

Anti-inflammatory Medication

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication (NSAIDs) can reduce swelling and inflammation in the shoulder and elbow. They are available over-the-counter without a prescription. The most common are ibuprofen, aspirin, and naproxen. You can take these medications over the course of several days as long as you follow dosing instructions on the package. If the pain does not resolve after taking these for a few days, contact a doctor.

Ice

After an initial injury, an ice pack or cold compress can reduce swelling and pain. Wrap the ice pack in a towel and apply it to the affected area for 15 minutes at a time, up to four times a day. If you don’t have an ice pack, you can make your own by putting ice in a sealed plastic bag or using a bag of frozen vegetables. 

Immobilization

If your shoulder or elbow hurts when you move it, immobilize it by putting your arm in a sling or wrapping your arm close to your body with an ACE bandage. Immobilizing your arm for too long could put you at risk for other conditions, such as frozen shoulder.  If the pain doesn’t get better within a day or two, schedule an appointment to see a doctor or go to the nearest urgent care. 

Compression

You can also wrap your shoulder or elbow to reduce swelling and pain. Use an ACE bandage or other elastic medical bandage and wrap it snugly around the injured area. Be careful not to wrap it too tight (you should not feel numbness or tingling in your arm or hand).

Modifying Your Activities

If your shoulder pain or elbow pain gets worse with certain activities, stop doing the things that are causing you pain.

Stretching and Strengthening Exercises

A physical therapist can provide exercises that will stretch and strengthen the muscles and tendons inside your shoulder and elbow.

If these home remedies do not reduce or eliminate your shoulder or elbow pain, schedule an appointment to see an orthopedic doctor.

How to Get a Referral for an Orthopedic Specialist

Patients can get a referral to see one of our orthopedic specialists from a primary care doctor or from an urgent care physician or clinician. Emergency room doctors can also refer you to see one of our orthopedic specialists for follow-up care after an ER visit for a shoulder or elbow injury.

Some insurance providers require that you get a referral from a primary care doctor before scheduling an appointment with an orthopedic specialist. Call your insurance to find out if a referral is required.

If you do not need a referral, you can schedule an appointment at any of our clinic locations by calling 801-587-7109