Shoulder pain explained

Shoulders are particularly prone to injury, sprains and strains and painful stiffness called frozen shoulder. Here we look the common causes of pain in the shoulders and how to treat shoulder pain.

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Symptoms of shoulder pain

The characteristics of shoulder pain vary, depending on the cause of the problem and they can be felt in different ways.

You may feel shoulder pain all the time, or only when you move your shoulder, and the pain might be temporary or continue (requiring medical diagnosis and treatment).


With tendonitis (inflammation of the tendons) and bursitis (where fluid builds up in the sac of fluid that cushions the shoulder joint, called the bursa) there is usually a slow onset of discomfort and you may have difficulty sleeping on the affected shoulder.


Frozen shoulder can cause pain, stiffness and restricted movement of the shoulder.


How shoulder pain can affect you?

Your shoulders provide the flexibility to lift and move your arms freely. So when they are in pain, you may find everyday activities like combing your hair and getting dressed difficult. Painful shoulders will also make it uncomfortable to play sports, lift heavy boxes or reaching above your head.

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Did you know?

The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons in the shoulder that connect the upper arm (humerus) to the shoulder blade (scapula). The tendons keep the shoulder stable, while the muscles allow the shoulder to rotate.*

72% of people with pain experience shoulder pain.**

*Rotator Cuff (Human Anatomy): Picture, Function, Location. 2016. Rotator Cuff (Human Anatomy): Picture, Function, Location. [ONLINE] Available at:
**GSK Global Pain Index 2014

Why do we experience shoulder pain?

There are many reasons why you might experience shoulder pain. For example, it can be caused by inflammation of the tendons (bursitis, tendonitis) or a torn tendon or osteoarthritis, which can lead to pain and discomfort in your shoulder.

Bursitis, tendonitis and tears

Bursitis, tendonitis and tears

Shoulder pain can be caused by bursitis (inflammation of the ‘cushions’ (bursa) between the bones and overlying soft tissues) or tendonitis (the wearing down of the tendon that occurs slowly over time due to overuse). Pain may occur when a tendon tears because of injury or long-term overuse; it becomes more common as we get older as our tendons weaken with age.

Painful shoulder conditions

Painful shoulder conditions

Shoulder impingement syndrome – where the tendons in the muscle become trapped and repeatedly scrape against the bone above – can cause pain. Some people also suffer from ‘frozen shoulder’, a painful stiffness that occurs when the flexible tissue that surrounds the shoulder joint becomes inflamed.

Expert treatment

To relieve shoulder pain, you can use drugs that can be taken by mouth or applied directly to the shoulder, and which are available from your pharmacy. You may also find that heat or cold packs can help to reduce your pain. If you are experiencing intense pain or pain that worsens, it is recommended that you visit a specialist who may conduct a physical examination to look for abnormalities, swelling, deformity, tenderness or muscle weakness, as well as checking your shoulder’s range of motion and strength. Additionally, they may order imaging tests (e.g. an X-ray, MRI or CT scan), as well as recommend anti-inflammatory medication to help reduce the inflammation. In order to help to recover, your specialist can suggest gentle stretching exercises and physical therapy.

Stretch your shoulders

This simple stretch helps to ease pain and prevent future symptoms:

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*GSK Global Pain Index Research 2014 Report. Available: Last accessed 20th April 2016.

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53% of people decribe their pain as aching* 53% of people decribe their pain as aching*