What does it mean when your shoulder hurts?
The shoulder girdle is an incredibly complex collection of bones, muscles, and tendons that work together to allow us to lift, lower, and rotate our arms in their sockets.
It consists of three separate joints that provide the largest range of motion of any part of the body. These three joints are the glenohumeral joint, the acromioclavicular (AC) joint, and the sternoclavicular joint. All three joints move and are stabilized through the complex interworkings of:
- Bones: The three main bones of the shoulder are the clavicle (also known as the collarbone), the scapula (shoulder blades), and the humerus (upper arm bone).
- Muscles: The muscles of the rotator cuff are the suprasinatus, the infraspinatus, the teres minor, and subscapularis. These muscles hold the head of the humerus in the cavity of the scapula called the glenoid.
In and around the three joints are tendons, ligaments, and cartilage, all designed to stabilize and mobilize the shoulder to perform daily actions both large and small. Any injury or inflammation in any of these structures can lead to pain. A few causes of shoulder pain are most common though, including:
- Rotator cuff injuries and tears
- Frozen shoulder syndrome
- Shoulder dislocation
- Referred pain from neck or upper back strain
Most types of shoulder pain are easily treated with non-invasive options like shoulder braces for pain, rest, and exercise. However, some require most focused care.
Rotator cuff injuries
Rotator cuff injuries, in particular, are one of the most common causes of pain. Whenever we raise up our children, carry groceries in from the car, or take a three-point shot, our rotator cuff comes into play. A rotator cuff injury can include tears or tendinitis, a condition in which the tendons of the rotator cuff become inflamed (also called impingement syndrome).
A rotator cuff injury occurs when the tendons incur a tear or a strain. This can be an actual separation of the tendons from the muscles, or it can be irritation or inflammation. Your injury can range from mild to severe. The main cause of rotator cuff injury is overuse or repetitive motion over a period of time. This can take many forms including:
- Jobs with heavy lifting
- A regular athletic practice that works or overworks the muscles of the shoulders
- Professional musicians such as cellists and violinists who are prone to rotator cuff injury in their bowing hands
- Suffering an injury to the shoulder, as in a car accident or in full-contact sports
- Age-related tendon degeneration
The large range of motion and involvement in daily tasks make injury to the rotator cuff very common. It may not be a dramatic movement that causes the injury, but the symptoms are similar regardless of how the injury occurs. They include:
- A dull ache that feels deep within the shoulder
- Difficulty sleeping on the side of the ache
- Decreased range of motion due to pain
- Weakness in the arm
- Radiating pain
All of these symptoms need not be present to receive a diagnosis, but they are the most common signs.
Am I at risk for shoulder pain?
Due to the location of the injury and the area’s involvement in daily life, it would seem that shoulder pain is inevitable. However, there are a few risk factors that make it more likely. These include:
- Age: Arthritis is often an age-related disease. In addition, rotator cuff injury also most commonly occurs in adults over age 40 due to degeneration of the tendons, cartilage, and ligaments.
- Activity level: Professional athletes or those who exercise in highly repetitive sports (e.g., tennis and baseball or softball) have an increased risk of shoulder injury. On the flip side, those who sit at desks all day with their head jutting forward and neck flexed may be at risk for mouse shoulder.
- Tradesmen: House painters and carpenters who work with their arms over their heads on a regular basis are more likely to experience shoulder issues.
Even if you’re at risk for shoulder pain, there are many treatments that can help. (And a bit of prevention, as we’ll discuss shortly, never hurts either.) One of the best ways to deal with a recent injury or chronic case of shoulder pain is with a brace.
Shoulder stabilizing braces
"My husband has to wait 3 more weeks for shoulder replacement surgery and is in agony. I bought this as a last ditch effort to help him during the wait since pain pills, ice, heat nor anything else he tried gave him any pain relief. He hasn’t slept in weeks. Omg! He is not totally pain free but is so much better with this shoulder brace. Both of us are very grateful. Hope it helps him get through until his surgery."- -mcbarbee
I received the brace a day later then suggested, but it did come. I have worn the brace for casual use around the house, but nothing heavy as of yet. The brace does seem to make a difference in the movement of my shoulder. When I moved my shoulder in a certain position, it was painful. But after wearing the brace and moving my shoulder in that same position I did not notice any pain. So I will start lifting sometime this week to really test out the brace. Will update in the next month or so.-- Joe