What Are the Causes of Shoulder Pain?

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Working with your arms overhead can cause shoulder pain. Hero Images/ Getty Images

Question: What Are the Causes of Shoulder Pain?

I recently developed shoulder pain, but I can't remember any specific injury. What could have caused my shoulder pain?


The shoulder is a complex ball and socket joint that is able to move in many directions. With this great mobility comes a lack of stability. The lack of stability in the shoulder makes it susceptible to injury and pain.

There are many causes of shoulder pain.

Finding a cause of your shoulder pain is one of the most important things that you, your doctor, or your physical therapist can do. This can help you treat your pain and help you prevent it in the future.

Common causes of shoulder pain include:

  1. Poor posture: Poor posture in sitting or standing can cause shoulder pain. If you have a rounded shoulder posture, the shoulder joint is placed in a position where the bursa, muscles, and tendons in the shoulder can be pinched. Try this experiment: Stand with poor posture and let your shoulders sag forward. Then try to lift your arms up overhead. They probably will not go very far, and pressure and strain will be felt in the shoulders. Next, stand with excellent posture with the shoulder blades pulled back. Raise your arms again, and you will find that the arms can reach fully overhead with no strain.
  2. Repetitive overhead activity: While reaching overhead, the space between the shoulder tendon (called the rotator cuff) and the shoulder blade decreases. The tendons can then get pinched underneath the bony part of the shoulder blade. This pinching, often called impingement syndrome, can be painful.
  1. Trauma: Occasionally, trauma can cause shoulder pain. Falling on an outstretched arm or falling on the side of your arm can injure the tendons or ligaments of the shoulder. A fall may also cause a fracture of the clavicle or proximal humerus, resulting in shoulder pain. Trauma in a fall or during sports can cause a shoulder dislocation or labrum tear.
  1. Frozen shoulder: The dreaded frozen shoulder, or adhesive capsulitis typically comes out of nowhere. A minor shoulder injury causes your shoulder to slowly and progressively tighten. This tightness causes significant pain and loss of range of motion.
  2. Arthritis: Arthritis is a degenerative condition that causes inflammation in any joint in the body. Arthritis most often occurs in the weight-bearing joints in the body, like the hip and knee. Occasionally, arthritis can occur in the shoulder, causing pain and loss of motion.
  3. No apparent reason: Often, shoulder pain occurs for no known reason. If this happens, one must consider repetitive strain that occurs with overhead reaching or poor posture as the cause. Speaking with your doctor or physical therapist can help analyze positions and activities that may be causing your problem.

Very often, shoulder pain is accompanied by loss of motion or weakness in the muscles that support and move the shoulder. Your doctor or physical therapist can evaluate your shoulder pain to help initiate the correct course of treatment. Your doctor may also order tests, like x-rays or an MRI, to help diagnose your problem.

When shoulder pain occurs, it is important to work with your physical therapist to help determine the cause of the pain.

This can help direct treatment to ensure rapid recovery and a full return to normal activity.


Hertling, D, & M., R. (2006). Management of common musculoskeletal disorders: physical therapy principles and methods. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins

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