Shoulder Pain

Most shoulder problems involve soft tissue, muscles, ligaments and tendons, rather than bones. They fall into three major categories:

Other, more rare causes of shoulder pain include tumors, infection, and nerve-related problems.


Determining the source of your shoulder pain is essential to determining the right course of treatment.

Your doctor will collect a thorough medical history to inquire about your general health and ask questions about your shoulder such as:

  • When did the pain begin?
  • Have you experienced this pain before? If so, how was it treated?
  • Is your shoulder condition aggravated or relieved by specific activities?

A physical examination will be performed to look for physical abnormalities, swelling, deformity, muscle weakness, or tender areas. Your doctor will also observe your range of shoulder motion.

Your doctor may use other diagnostic techniques to get more detailed information. These include:

  • X-rays to look closely at the bones and joints in your shoulder
  • CT scan to get a more detailed view of the shoulder area
  • Electrical studies such as an EMG (electromyogram) to look at nerve damage
  • Arthrogram, an X-ray study in which dye is injected into the shoulder, to better see the joint and its surrounding muscles and tendons
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and ultrasound for images of the soft tissues


Treatment for shoulder pain typically requires rest, altering activities, and physical therapy to improve shoulder strength and flexibility. Medication may be prescribed to reduce pain and inflammation. 90 percent of patients respond to these simple treatments. Surgery may be required if conservative treatments fair or for certain types of shoulder problems such as recurring dislocation and some rotator cuff tears.

Reproduced with permission Fischer S., (interim ed): Your Orthopaedic Connection. Rosemont, Illinois. Copyright American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.