Osteoarthritis gradually wears away the cartilage in your shoulder joints and brings on pain stemming from bone-on-bone friction. Tendonitis and bursitis involve tissue inflammation that irritates your joints, making them stiff, achy, and tough to move. While it may seem that the pain from these conditions appears suddenly, it’s actually been building up behind the scenes for quite some time.
Acute shoulder pain, on the other hand, hits you suddenly — and is usually the result of an accident or sports injury.
Southern California’s Dr. Neil Ghodadra — former team physician to the Chicago Bulls and Chicago White Sox — has seen more than a few shoulder injuries in his day, and he can diagnose and treat yours, too. Here, he discusses five of the most common causes of sudden shoulder pain, so you know when to seek his help.
1. Rotator cuff injuries
Your rotator cuff is the group of muscles and tendons surrounding your shoulder joint, keeping the head of your upper arm bone firmly within the shallow socket of your shoulder blade. An acute injury or progressive wear-and-tear from repetitive motions can cause sudden strains or tears in these tissues, leading to pain and discomfort.
Rotator cuff tears typically cause sharp pain (especially during arm movement), difficulty sleeping on the affected side, and a decreased range of motion.
Regular exercises to strengthen your shoulder, avoiding heavy lifting, and using proper techniques during physical activities can prevent rotator cuff tears.
Dr. Ghodadra typically recommends physical therapy and sometimes anti-inflammatories to treat the problem, but you may need surgery if the tear doesn’t heal.
2. Frozen shoulder
Also known as adhesive capsulitis, this condition involves stiffness and pain in your shoulder joint. While it typically develops gradually, it can suddenly worsen.
Frozen shoulder progresses through three distinct stages:
- Stage 1: Severe pain and limited mobility
- Stage 2: Less pain but an inability to move the shoulder
- Stage 3: Gradually return to full mobility
The progression from “freezing” to “frozen” to “thawing” can take months or years.
Although a frozen shoulder can result from injuries, medical conditions, and extended periods of immobility (i.e., following shoulder surgery), it can also occur for no obvious reason. You can reduce your risk of developing a frozen shoulder by keeping your shoulder joints flexible and maintaining regular movement and exercise.
Treatment usually involves physical therapy and pain-relieving medication.
3. Shoulder impingement
Shoulder impingement occurs when the top of your shoulder blade puts pressure on the underlying soft tissues when you lift your arm away from your body. Essentially, your shoulder blade pinches your rotator cuff.
Shoulder impingement causes pain when you lift your arm to shoulder height or above your head, or when you lower it from those positions. It can also cause muscle weakness in your shoulder, difficulty reaching behind the back, and pain that worsens at night.
Regularly performing exercises to strengthen your rotator cuff muscles can help prevent shoulder impingement.
We treat shoulder impingement with physical therapy, rest, and anti-inflammatory medications. In more severe cases, Dr. Ghodadra may perform surgery to create more space for the rotator cuff.
4. Dislocated shoulder
A dislocated shoulder is an injury where your upper arm bone pops out of the cup-shaped socket that’s part of your shoulder blade.
If you dislocate your shoulder, you’ll experience intense pain, an inability to move the joint, and a visible deformity if the shoulder is out of place.
Since traumatic accidents and collisions are the leading causes of dislocated shoulders, avoiding falls and high-impact sports can help prevent this injury.
Dr. Ghodadra treats your dislocated shoulder by resetting the shoulder bone, immobilizing it with a sling, and prescribing physical therapy.
5. Superior labrum anterior and posterior (SLAP) tear
A SLAP tear is an injury to the labrum of the shoulder, which is a cartilage ring that surrounds the shoulder joint socket. This type of injury is common in people who perform repetitive shoulder movements, particularly overhead activities.
SLAP tears cause a sensation of locking, popping, or grinding pain when you move or hold your shoulder in specific positions, as well as decreased range of joint motion.
Avoiding overuse of your shoulder and strengthening your shoulder muscles could prevent a SLAP tear.
The best treatment approach usually involves physical therapy and anti-inflammatory medications, but if your symptoms persist, Dr. Ghodadra might recommend arthroscopic surgery.
Expert help for sudden shoulder pain
Although they’re the most common, these five shoulder conditions aren’t the only potential causes of shoulder pain. If you have a painful shoulder that makes it tough to get dressed, brush your teeth, reach the upper cabinets, or throw a ball — stop shouldering the pain.
Call NEIL GHODADRA, M.D., in West Los Angeles, and Thousand Oaks, California, to schedule a consultation with one of the country’s best shoulder pain experts.