Feeling some aches in your shoulders after working out, sleeping strangely, or even just from everyday wear and tear usually isn’t anything to be concerned about. However, for many people, shoulder pain goes further than this, causing a lot of discomfort and, in some situations, creating more damage to the affected area.
It’s important to address shoulder pain right away—not only to get relief from what you are feeling, but also to protect your shoulders from future harm. But this can be a challenge when you aren’t sure what shoulder pain means. Here, we’ll go over 3 potential explanations behind your discomfort. Continue reading to learn more about what shoulder pain means, when to be concerned, and how to get support.
4 Reasons Behind Shoulder Pain
When it comes to chronic shoulder pain, there are a lot of unknowns. For some people, shoulder pain begins as a result of an injury or after a trauma to the area. For others, the shoulder pain begins suddenly and without any known cause. Unfortunately, long-lasting or chronic shoulder pain affects as many as half of all patients who report muscle and other body aches. This goes to show the prevalence of this issue. But we’re still left wondering: What does shoulder pain mean? Is it an indication of something more serious?
Let’s look at 3 possible causes behind your shoulder pain. Keep in mind that you should always report any unusual, persistent pain to your doctor in order to get the most accurate diagnosis and subsequent treatment plan.
1. Rotator cuff damage
The group of muscles and tendons that connect to the joint of the shoulder is known as the rotator cuff. This rotator cuff is responsible for keeping the shoulder stable and also allowing it to move. However, there are two types of damage that can occur to this group of muscles and lead to pain:
- Rotator cuff tendinitis – Also known as shoulder impingement, rotator cuff tendinitis is a common cause of shoulder pain. Tendinitis refers to the swelling of the tendons in a particular area, usually as the result of wear and tear with repetitive motions (such as pitching a ball) or strain from overuse. Typically, the pain that happens with rotator cuff tendinitis is located in the front of the shoulder and does not extend past the elbow. This can make it painful to lift and lower the arm. Treatment for tendinitis might involve taking anti-inflammatory medications, icing the shoulder, and/or doing physical therapy.
- Rotator cuff tear – Similar to a shoulder impingement, a rotator cuff tear can make it extremely difficult or painful to move the arm. With this, though, the tendons of the rotator cuff tear either partially or all the way through. The tear can also become worse over time. If you are feeling pain with a rotator cuff tear for a prolonged period of time, you might need more drastic interventions. This is where seeing an orthopedic surgeon could be useful. They will be able to assess the extent of the injury and better guide you on your options for treatment, whether that includes more rest or surgery to repair the tear.
2. Rheumatoid arthritis
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains that rheumatoid arthritis, also known as RA, is an autoimmune disorder in which the body mistakenly attacks itself. This then results in a lot of inflammation throughout the body—particularly in the joints. Thus, many times, the answer to the mystery of what shoulder pain means ends up being rheumatoid arthritis.
Shoulder pain in people with RA can impact the ability to do any activities that involve arm movement. Additionally, the shoulder joint might become so swollen that a person’s range of motion is hindered. This makes it very difficult to move your shoulder.
With RA, there is no cure, and finding the right treatment takes time. A lot of people with RA end up turning to chronic pain advocacy groups in order to find support while they’re struggling to know what their shoulder pain means. Talking to others through groups like the Pain Resource Community can also help to navigate the complicated feelings after getting a diagnosis of RA.
3. Frozen shoulder
You might have heard of the expression “giving the cold shoulder.” This often makes people picture somebody who is unmoving in their ways. Well, in a sense, a frozen shoulder is similar: it causes severe stiffness in the shoulder joint that greatly limits one’s range of motion. As a result, it can be extremely painful and even feel impossible to move your arm.
Experts aren’t exactly sure what causes a frozen shoulder to happen, but what they do know about this shoulder pain is that it stems from inflammation in the shoulder joint. Having an injury to the shoulder, co-occurring health conditions that cause pain, and a history of thyroid disease are all risk factors that can increase your chances of developing a frozen shoulder.
In the early stages, the pain that comes with this condition can sometimes be managed with anti-inflammatory medications, gentle stretches, and physical therapy. However, as a frozen shoulder continues to worsen, other, more invasive options might be needed. This could include surgery to essentially free up the frozen shoulder joint. As always, it’s important to consult with a doctor or orthopedic surgeon to know about all of your options and the treatment plan that is going to be most beneficial to you.
Treating Shoulder Pain
Now that you know what shoulder pain means, or at least some of the explanations behind it, you can begin to look for the answers to your questions. The conditions listed above are all different and require varying forms of treatment, which is why it is essential to get your shoulder pain examined right away. You should see a doctor if you are feeling pain in your shoulder that:
- Does not go away after a couple of weeks
- Gets worse with movement
- Radiates through the upper arm bone
- Spreads through to the scapulas
- Makes it difficult to function
Living with pain is no easy task—but it’s also not something you have to take on yourself. Get tips and tricks on pain management, learn more about what shoulder pain means, and find comfort in the chronic pain community.
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