Shoulder pain is surprisingly common, especially among athletes and other people who use their shoulders a lot of reaching and lifting. But even people who don’t use their shoulders excessively can still wind up with minor aches and pains.
Fortunately, a lot of minor shoulder pain can be relieved with some simple TLC. When minor symptoms don’t resolve your minor shoulder pain, that’s a sign you need more intensive intervention — the kind only a doctor can provide.
Common Shoulder Problems
The shoulder joint is a collection of muscles, tendons, ligaments and other structures that keep your shoulder moving the way it’s supposed to. Like other joints, your shoulders are subjected to a lot of wear and tear. To some degree, your shoulders adjust to your regular routines and activities. The muscles and tendons become accustomed to many of the daily stresses placed on them, so you can perform your regular actions without pain.
But when you use your shoulders for something out of the ordinary — like spending the weekend raking leaves or playing an intense game of pick-up basketball, for instance — it’s not unusual to develop aches and pains in and around the joint. Usually, these symptoms are related to sore or strained muscles. A little rest and application of ice may be all it takes to help your shoulder get back to normal.
When shoulder pain is associated with specific activities, like lifting or reaching, it could be a problem with the rotator cuff. The rotator cuff comprises muscles, ligaments and other structures that help hold the arm bone in the socket part of the joint. Even though the rotator cuff is very strong, it’s not unusual for it to be injured by overuse and strain, or even from accidents, like a minor fall.
Shoulder impingement, or swimmer’s shoulder, is another relatively common cause of shoulder pain. Impingement occurs when softer structures of the shoulder joint get trapped and “pinched” between bones and other structures. Like rotator cuff problems, impingement issues tend to occur more commonly with repeated movements, like stretching and overhead lifting. Sometimes, impingement and rotator cuff problems occur concurrently.
Frozen shoulder, or adhesive capsulitis, tends to become more common with age. With frozen shoulder, you’re more likely to have pain when you raise your arms or try to lift something over your head. This condition develops when scar tissue forms inside the joint, preventing normal movement. People with frozen shoulder may also have pain when they try to sleep on the affected side.
How do you treat a sore shoulder?
If your shoulder pain is relatively minor, you might try a little home treatment to see if the symptoms subside. That means resting the shoulder – not using it for lifting or reaching – for a few days. It’s OK to gently stretch the shoulder to relieve muscle soreness, but avoid strenuous activity. Another simple, gentle exercise is to stand up and bend over from the waist, letting your arm hang down in front of you. This position gently stretches the muscles and tendons without putting excess strain on them.
Apply ice three or four times a day for no more than 10 to 15 minutes each time. Ice can help relieve inflammation and swelling around the joint. If you like, you can use a sling to stabilize the shoulder throughout the day. Avoid lying on that side when you sleep. Some types of minor shoulder pain might feel better if you elevate the arm with pillows when lying down or even while sitting. Try very gently massaging the area to relieve muscle soreness. Just don’t use strong pressure and stop massaging if it causes your pain to worsen. Over-the-counter pain relievers can help as well.
Shoulder pain can take a long time to resolve entirely — often a few weeks. If at any time you notice your symptoms getting worse or if they’re just not getting any better, it’s time to call Dr. Van Thiel to schedule an evaluation.
Evaluating minor shoulder pain
Dr. Van Thiel uses several methods to evaluate shoulder pain. First, he’ll physically examine the joint, using simple movements to evaluate your symptoms. He’ll probably also order X-rays or other imaging to look for more serious causes of pain. Depending on your symptoms and your exam results, he might recommend shoulder arthroscopy. This minimally-invasive, outpatient procedure uses a thin scope with a tiny camera to literally see inside your joint. The scope is inserted via a very small incision. Once it’s in place, it sends real-time images to a computer monitor. In some cases, Dr. Van Thiel can even make small repairs to the joint during the exam.
Like any joint pain, shoulder pain tends to become more common as we get older. But just because it’s not unusual, that doesn’t mean it should be ignored. Like any joint pain, shoulder pain is a sign that there’s something wrong with the joint. If you’ve got shoulder pain that just won’t go away, scheduling an office visit with Dr. Van Thiel is a smart way to prevent your pain from getting worse. To schedule an office visit at our Rockford or Algonquin locations, give us a call 779-774-1101 or use our online form to request an appointment today.