Shoulder Pain: 7 Warning Signs You Should See a Doctor - Dr. Wilson Shoulder Specialist

Shoulder pain and stiffness is a common problem, with nearly half of Americans reporting chronic pain in their deltoid (shoulder) region. Since we use our shoulders for so many daily activities, from carrying grocery bags to driving our car, it’s easy to see why shoulder pain persists as a regular issue for so many Americans.

Shoulder pain can be caused by overuse, over-extension, or even under-use. In athletes or people with labor-intensive jobs, overuse can cause inflammation and soreness–but shoulder stiffness can also be caused by not exercising the shoulder muscles regularly enough.

To recognize and understand warning signs, it’s easiest to explore the possibilities by zeroing in on exactly what part of the shoulder hurts.

Recognizing When to See a Doctor for Shoulder Pain

Typically, shoulder pain is muscular or skeletal. Oftentimes, simple shoulder pain can be easily treated with over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications, gentle stretches and exercises, and a combination of ice or heat. Particularly if you’ve recently been involved in shoulder-related activities such as lifting heavy boxes, playing certain sports, or even sleeping in a new position — overuse of the shoulder is a common cause of shoulder stiffness and pain.

However, if you experience any of these symptoms, it’s time to consider visiting an orthopaedic specialist:

  • Inability to carry items
  • Inability to move the arm or joint
  • Night time shoulder pain that impedes sleep
  • Pain while shoulder is resting
  • Swelling, bruising, or discoloration of the shoulder
  • Inability to lift your arm
  • Shoulder pain that lasts more than a few days
  • Any signs of infection
    • Shoulder swelling
    • Skin of shoulder is warm/hot to the touch
    • Shoulder is red or inflamed
    • Extreme pain
    • Fever or fatigue

If your shoulder pain is accompanied by trouble breathing, abdominal pain, or tightness of the chest, you should seek medical care immediately. These symptoms could indicate severe medical distress, such as heart attack or lung cancer.

Different Shoulder Pain Conditions:

  1. Tendon inflammation (bursitis or tendinitis) or tendon tear
  2. Instability
  3. Arthritis
  4. Fracture (broken bone)
  5. Frozen shoulder
  6. Chronic Upper Shoulder Tightness
  7. Rotator Cuff Tears

The shoulder has a complex anatomy, consisting of three bones–the humerus, scapula, and clavicle–as well as ligaments, muscles, and a ball socket; therefore, there are many potential causes of injury or pain. Here are a few common shoulder injuries or conditions that can cause pain, which should be treated by an orthopaedic physician.

  1. Tendon Inflammation or Tendon Tear

In cases of bursitis or tendinitis, the pain may be sudden onset, sometimes occurring after an audible popping sound in the shoulder. A tendon tear can be recognized by sudden weakness in the shoulder or arm, including an inability to use the arm. It’s highly recommended to visit an orthopaedic doctor for cases of inflamed or torn tendons, as certain medications and exercises can protect the injured area and promote healing. A patient may be prescribed physical therapy, corticosteroids, or a brace to protect their shoulder, followed by lots of rest.

  1. Shoulder Instability

Patients with repeated shoulder injuries or dislocations may suffer from shoulder instability. Symptoms include a persistent feeling that the shoulder is “loose,” or slipping in and out of the socket. Shoulder instability can cause future dislocation and injury and should be managed by an orthopaedic professional. An orthopaedic doctor can help with home exercises to strengthen the shoulder, as well as physical therapy. Depending on the degree of the instability, sometimes surgery is necessary if long-term rehabilitation has not proven successful.

  1. Arthritis

Arthritis patients often complain of a grinding or catching sensation in their shoulder joint, which causes pain and limited range of motion. A shoulder with arthritis may feel stiff or tender, and could appear swollen. Patients experiencing arthritis in their shoulder are recommended to see an orthopaedic doctor as soon as possible, as arthritis can be slowed or possibly prevented if caught early. While corticosteroids and ibuprofen can ease pain, many patients have found shoulder arthroscopy can remove bone spurs and irritants that cause arthritis pain.

  1. Shoulder Fracture

If you have fractured or broken your shoulder, you should see a doctor immediately. An orthopaedic medical professional can provide a brace or cast to protect the bone and allow it to heal properly.

  1. Frozen Shoulder

Typically, cases of frozen shoulder happen around age 50 or older. When the rotator cuff muscles lock up, or “freeze,” the patient’s range of motion becomes extremely limited. Treatments involve orthopaedic physical therapy, corticosteroid injections, or, if nothing else has helped, surgery on the shoulder.

  1. Chronic Upper Shoulder Tightness

Poor posture and certain sleeping positions can impact a patient’s shoulder, leading to chronic tightness in the muscles surrounding the shoulder. This stiffness can cause pain and lead to decreased range of motion. Physical therapy can help, as well as certain stretches and exercises. Orthopaedic doctors can work to correct postural imbalances that cause chronic shoulder tightness.

  1. Rotator Cuff Tears

Many patients with rotator cuff tears or inflammation categorize the pain as a dull ache deep inside their shoulder joint. This kind of injury can cause pain and swelling of the shoulder, a clicking sound when raising your arm, pain with raising or lowering of the arm, pain caused by reaching behind your back, and a pain so bad it wakes you from sleep.

Rotator cuff tears often occur as a result of sports that utilize overhead motions of the arm, but can also happen to anyone doing regular, repetitive motion of the arm and shoulder. For example, grocery clerks who ring items up all day, or warehouse workers pushing boxes across a conveyor belt can tear a rotator cuff.

Treatment can involve corticosteroid injections and exercises to help strengthen the muscles and ease muscle spasms that cause chronic pain. However, if a rotator cuff injury is severe, an experienced orthopaedic surgeon can treat it with a simple and routine surgery.

Is It Time For You to Visit an Orthopaedic Surgeon?

If your shoulder has any of the above symptoms, it may be time for you to visit Dr. Wilson, an award-winning doctor in patient care and orthopaedic practice. With years of experience working as the orthopaedic doctor for the Chicago Bulls, he’s well-practiced in the complexities and unique-cases of shoulder injuries. Book an appointment online, or call us at (919) 220-5255 to get started on your journey to pain relief.