<< Back

What Different Types of Shoulder Pain Could Mean

March 07, 2024

Shoulder pain can start (and show up) in many ways. But nagging shoulder pain is the most common types of issues that doctors see, according to Jordan Gruskay, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at the Connecticut Orthopaedic Institute at St. Vincent’s Medical Center and MidState Medical Center.

“The most common patient we see is someone whose pain has built up over time,” says Dr. Gruskay. “I don’t think there is anyone over 30 who doesn’t have some level of shoulder pain day-to-day. With chronic pain complaints, it’s our job to figure out what is concerning or just part of life.”

Here are some common types of shoulder pain and how to know when it’s time to see a doctor.

Want to connect with the Connecticut Orthopaedic Institute?

Visit websiteCall 855.902.8581

1. Rotator cuff issues

The rotator cuff is a set of muscles that helps us lift up and out and reach overhead.

“The most common shoulder pain we see is related to the rotator cuff,” says Dr. Gruskay. “Sometimes there can be an acute injury, but mostly it comes on gradually over time, and you may not even know exactly what happened.”

This discomfort can look like:

  • Pain reaching overhead
  • Pain reaching your arm up to the side
  • Pain that keeps you up at night

“Rotator cuff pain often feels uncomfortable in the upper arm or down to your elbow, so you might not immediately think of the shoulder,” says Dr. Gruskay. “This pain often may be from either tendonitis or tears. Since those present similarly, we often rely on an MRI for diagnosis.”

2. Overuse

Do you do a lot of repetitive motion in your daily life? Then your shoulder pain may be from your labrum, the soft tissue cartilage that surrounds the socket of a ball and socket joint to make it more stable.

Dr. Gruskay sees this overuse injury more commonly in younger patients, particularly those with manual labor jobs. It’s also more likely if you go to the gym a lot (especially if push-ups and presses are a big part of your routine), play football, or participate in a sport that involves throwing or other repetitive overhead movements.

> Related: How to Avoid and Treat Shoulder Injuries in Golf

3. Frozen shoulder

While frozen shoulder is sometimes associated with diabetes or autoimmune issues, it’s more common than people think.

With this condition, you may experience pain and stiffness. You might be unable to move your shoulder up to the side or forward.

“Frozen shoulder does very well with injections and therapy,” Dr. Gruskay says. “It can last from a year to 16 to 18 months. We often help people battle this for a while before it goes away completely.”

4. Arthritis

While it’s less common, you can get arthritis in your shoulder.

“It almost always comes from a previous injury that happened much earlier in life,” explains Dr. Gruskay. “Since many symptoms and complaints can overlap with the rotator cuff or frozen shoulder, you’ll need an X-ray for diagnosis.”

Want more health news? Text StartHere to 85209 to sign up for text alerts

5. Pinched nerve

Sometimes, shoulder pain is a neck problem.

The culprit? A pinched nerve.

If you’re experiencing neck pain or symptoms (i.e., numbness, tingling, weakness) that go into your shoulder blades, shoulder, arm or fingers, your doctor may recommend a neck evaluation including XR and MRI to see exactly where the issue is.

Shoulder pain is part of life, but here’s when to see your doctor

“Shoulder pain is very common, and it’s not something that most people need to worry about,” says Dr. Gruskay. “Most of the time, people get shoulder pain because there’s normal wear and tear, or their shoulder isn’t quite strong enough or they’re overusing it.”

While he says we should expect some level of discomfort in our shoulders throughout our lives, there are signs to watch out for. If you experience any of these symptoms, you may want to see a doctor:

  • Weakness in your shoulder
  • Inability to reach overhead
  • Interference with daily tasks like doing your hair or putting on a shirt.

While Dr. Gruskay says most shoulder pain (especially the more chronic ones that build up slowly over time) can be managed conservatively without surgery, timing matters.

“Don’t let it ride or hang around. See your doctor sooner than later so we can see what’s going on and help you feel better.”