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Acromioclavicular injury or arthritis (or AC joint arthritis) is a painful condition that causes symptoms on the top “surface” of the shoulder, where the collarbone (clavicle) meets the shoulder blade (scapula).

If you have an AC joint arthritis or injury, you might have pain when you move or swing your arm across your body - for instance, when you swing a tennis racket or golf club.

Although the AC joint isn't as “well known” as the knee or elbow joint or the joint that connects your upper arm with your shoulder blade, AC joint arthritis is surprisingly common. Here's what you should know about AC joint injuries or arthritis, including its symptoms, its diagnosis and its treatment.

What causes AC joint arthritis?

Most AC joint arthritis is caused by normal wear and tear in the joint that causes the joint surfaces to break down and wear away over time. This type of arthritis is called osteoarthritis, and it can be exacerbated by age-related changes, repetitive use, or some sports and weight-bearing activities, or it may develop following an injury to a joint. As the joint surfaces wear away, the bony surfaces of the joints begin to rub against each other, causing painful friction and inflammation inside the joint. Often, bony growths called bone spurs form along the joint edges, pressing against muscles and other tissues and contributing to pain and immobility.

What kinds of symptoms do AC joint injuries or arthritis cause?

Arthritis is associated with pain and stiffness in the affected joint. In either AC joint arthritis or injuries, you may experience pain and tenderness on the top or front of the shoulder, as well as discomfort and stiffness when performing certain shoulder movements, like reaching across your body or stretching or reaching up. Occasionally, you may notice slight swelling in the area as inflammation inside the joint increases. Symptoms tend to progress slowly, and often, they're “written off” as a natural part of the aging process, which means the disease can progress unchecked. Having shoulder pain symptoms evaluated early can help slow the progression of the disease and prevent other related problems like shoulder impingement from developing later on.

Treatment & AC Joint Arthritis Surgery

Treatment begins with a careful evaluation of the joint, usually accompanied by X-rays or MRIs to evaluate the joint structures and assess the extent of any joint damage. Once the diagnosis of AC joint arthritis has been confirmed, treatment begins with conservative options like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and warm compresses to improve joint mobility. Activity modification and corticosteroid injections may also be helpful. Although some studies show gentle stretching may help improve symptoms in the AC joint, physical therapy can also be beneficial.

When conservative approaches aren't effective in relieving your symptoms, your doctor may recommend surgery to remove tissue fragments or to reshape the bones in the joint to help reduce friction and promote normal, pain-free range of motion. Most shoulder surgery to correct AC joint arthritis can be performed using a minimally-invasive technique called arthroscopy, which relies on small incisions and promotes a faster recovery compared to traditional surgical techniques.

What is causing your shoulder pain?

The shoulder joint is very complex, and there are lots of issues that can cause pain and other symptoms in and around the joint. Dr. Van Thiel with OrthoIllinois uses state-of-the-art techniques to evaluate shoulder pain and diagnose its cause so it can be treated using the most appropriate and most effective approaches. Like other joint pain, shoulder pain responds best when “caught” and treated early. To find out what's causing your shoulder pain and to learn about your available treatment options, call Dr. Van Thiel with OrthoIllinois at and schedule an appointment today.

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