The shoulder is the most complex joint in the human body, so it is no surprise that shoulder pain and weakness are common complaints for many adults. But figuring out the reason can be elusive. It could be tied to an injury, overuse, muscle imbalances, or lifting improperly. Regardless, the first step towards healing is figuring out what’s causing the discomfort.
Rotator Cuff Tears
Nick Avallone, MD, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist at Atlantic Health System, says many adult shoulder problems stem from a tear in the rotator cuff, the collection of tendons that keep your arm nestled snugly into your shoulder socket.
“Half of the adults over 50 years old have a tear in their rotator cuff of varying degrees, and many don’t know it,” says Dr. Avallone. “While for most there are no symptoms, others experience episodes of dysfunction and discomfort. If simple tasks like brushing your hair, getting dressed, or lifting something become painful, it’s time to find out why.”
Here are the five most common reasons for adult shoulder pain.
- A rotator cuff tear is when a tendon detaches partially or separates completely from the bone.
- Calcium deposits build up in tendons, which cause inflammation in the surrounding tissue.
- Frozen shoulder is tissue swelling around the joint that causes stiffness and limited mobility.
- Tendonitis is inflammation or swelling of the tendons.
- Arthritis is a breakdown of the joint over time, which leads to chronic pain and swelling.
For quick relief from shoulder pain, stop what you’re doing and begin first-line treatments to bring the swelling down. Apply heat in the morning, ice in the evening, and take over-the-counter pain-relief medications as listed on the bottle.
“It is important to take a conservative approach to shoulder injuries and exhaust all possible treatment methods before considering steroid injections or surgery,” says Dr. Avallone, who explains that rest and at-home remedies can usually get people through painful episodes of arthritis or tendonitis.
When to See a Doctor
If there has been no trauma, and the pain persists for more than four weeks, it’s time to see a doctor. Your orthopedist will likely first recommend physical therapy to strengthen the muscles around the joint. At times, a steroid injection can be administered to reduce pain and inflammation. The physician may also consider an MRI or ultrasound to help pin down the root cause.
“We have very high success rates with shoulder surgery if it is needed,” says Dr. Avallone. “We use minimally invasive arthroscopic techniques to repair full or partial rotator cuff tears. Our radiology colleagues use ultrasound guidance to remove calcium deposits. In these cases, most people return to their previous strength, range of motion and mobility once they’ve fully recovered.”
Protect Your Shoulders
Dr. Avallone says staying active and moving the shoulder joint are crucial to preventing future injuries. Proper body techniques that use the legs and keep the elbows close to the body when you lift your arms go a long way. And if you can avoid extreme reaching or repetitive motions, do it.
“The best way to keep your shoulder joints safe is the same for every joint in the body — keep them moving in healthy ways,” says Dr. Avallone. “It’s easy to lose range of motion, and it’s really hard to regain it.”
Be Proactive About Your Health
To stay safe and healthy, it's good to have a primary care provider who knows and understands your health history and wellness goals.