Athletes are at high risk for injuries that affect the shoulder joint's muscles, tendons, ligaments, and cartilage. These injuries can cause shoulder pain and other symptoms that make it hard to work out and compete.

If you’re an athlete experiencing shoulder pain, identifying your injury can be the first step toward healing. Three of the most common sports-related shoulder injuries are described below.

1. Rotator cuff tears

When treating a rotator cuff injury, doctors may order medical imaging right away or prescribe nonsurgical treatment and take a wait-and-see approach. See Rotator Cuff Injuries: Diagnosis

You have a higher risk of tearing your rotator cuff if you swim, play tennis, or do another sport that requires repetitive shoulder motion. Tears may happen suddenly or gradually, over weeks or months.

If you have a rotator cuff tear, you may experience:

  • Dull, aching shoulder pain. This pain may be present even when the shoulder is at rest. Pain may get worse when raising the affected arm.
  • Trouble sleeping. Shoulder pain may make it difficult to get comfortable in bed and fall asleep or stay asleep.
  • Shoulder weakness. Movements that require raising your arm—whether playing racquet sports or just washing your hair—may seem challenging. Weakness may limit your shoulder’s active range of motion.
  • Joint clicking or popping. A rotator cuff tear may affect the mechanics of the shoulder’s ball-and-socket joint and cause popping or clicking during movement.

Shoulder popping or clicking without pain or other symptoms is usually not a cause for concern.

Read more about Rotator Cuff Injuries: Symptoms

What is a rotator cuff tear?

The rotator cuff is made up of 4 muscles and their tendons. They blend together to form a “cuff” that surrounds and supports the shoulder’s ball-and-socket joint. Without a rotator cuff, the rounded top of the humerus bone would not rest comfortably in its socket.

Rotator cuff tears can range in size from small (less than 1 cm) to large (about 3 cm or more). 1 Beaudreuil J, Dhénain M, Coudane H, Mlika-Cabanne N. Clinical practice guidelines for the surgical management of rotator cuff tears in adults. Orthop Traumatol Surg Res. 2010;96(2):175-179. doi:10.1016/j.otsr.2010.02.002 , 2 Nganga M, Lizarondo L, Krishnan J, Stephenson M. Management of full thickness rotator cuff tears in the elderly: a systematic review protocol. JBI Database System Rev Implement Rep. 2018;16(8):1628-1633. doi:10.11124/JBISRIR-2017-003596 Full-thickness tears are tears that split a rotator cuff muscle into two pieces or pull a tendon off the bone. The symptoms you feel will depend on the size and location of the tear, as well as other factors.

Read more about Rotator Cuff Injuries

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2. SLAP tears

There are several nonsurgical and surgical options available to treat labrum tears (SLAP tears) in the shoulder. See Labrum Tear Treatments

You may be at risk for a SLAP tear if you do a sport that requires repetitive shoulder motions, particularly overhead motions such as throwing a baseball. SLAP tears can happen suddenly, but are more likely to develop gradually.

If you have a SLAP tear, you may notice:

  • A popping or locking sensation. Moving the injured shoulder may cause joint popping, clicking, grinding, or locking.
  • Certain movements cause pain. A SLAP tear may not cause constant pain. Intermittent pain is likely to flare up during certain shoulder movements, such as throwing a ball or lifting an object overhead.
  • Shoulder weakness. A loss of shoulder strength may affect athletic performance, as well as the ability to do everyday tasks. The biceps muscle may be weaker than normal.
  • Joint instability. The shoulder may feel loose, as if it could pop out of its socket.

These symptoms may make it difficult to raise your arms. You may not be able to throw a ball, swim, or lift an object overhead like you normally could.

Read more about SLAP Tear Symptoms

What is a SLAP tear?

A Superior Labral Anterior and Posterior tear, or SLAP tear, is an injury to the strong, flexible ring of cartilage that rims the shoulder’s socket. This cartilage is called the shoulder labrum (your hip joint has a labrum, too).

SLAP tears occur at the top of the labrum. The top of the labrum is also the point where the upper arm’s biceps muscle attaches to the shoulder. In some cases, a strained, frayed biceps tendon leads to a SLAP tear.

No matter how a SLAP tear develops, it can affect the biceps muscle and upper arm strength.

Read more about SLAP Tear Shoulder Injury and Treatment

3. Shoulder dislocation and chronic instability

Three factors can make the shoulder more susceptible to dislocation: repetitive overhead movement, previous dislocation, and genetics. Read Causes and Risk Factors for a Dislocated Shoulder

If you play contact sports, such as football or hockey, you may have dislocated your shoulder in a collision or fall. Shoulder dislocations, including partial dislocations (subluxations), can put you at a higher risk of developing a chronic condition called shoulder instability.

Shoulder dislocation is different than shoulder instability. During dislocation, the shoulder’s ball comes out of its socket. Dislocation is typically sudden, causes severe pain, and requires immediate treatment.

Shoulder instability is an ongoing condition that may cause:

  • Shoulder weakness. Your shoulder may feel like it is going to give out when you raise your arm, especially if you’re trying to lift an object.
  • Joint instability or looseness. You may feel as if your shoulder joint is slipping in and out of alignment. You may worry it will pop out of place.
  • Unusual heaviness. Your arm may feel heavier than normal, as if it’s hanging from the shoulder socket.

While shoulder dislocation can increase the risk of shoulder instability, the opposite is true, too—instability can increase the risk of dislocation.

Read more about Dislocated Shoulder Symptoms

What is shoulder instability?

Your shoulder’s ball-and-socket joint is held in place by soft tissues, such as the labrum, ligaments, and rotator cuff. If these tissues become loose, overstretched, or damaged from a shoulder dislocation, your joint may be less stable. And if your shoulder joint is not stable, you are at increased risk of another shoulder dislocation.

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Not all shoulder instability is caused by shoulder dislocations or partial dislocations. The ligaments in your shoulder may become strained and loose if you play a sport that requires repetitive, powerful overhead movement, such as swimming or baseball. You may also experience shoulder instability if your joints are hypermobile.

Read more: 3 Causes of Shoulder Instability

Treatment for shoulder injuries

The shoulder injuries described above can get worse over time—especially if left untreated. If you think you have a sports-related soft-tissue shoulder injury, consider rest and medical treatment to help ease symptoms and encourage healing.

Learn more:

How Do Rotator Cuff Injuries Occur?

Treatment for a Dislocated Shoulder

  • 1 Beaudreuil J, Dhénain M, Coudane H, Mlika-Cabanne N. Clinical practice guidelines for the surgical management of rotator cuff tears in adults. Orthop Traumatol Surg Res. 2010;96(2):175-179. doi:10.1016/j.otsr.2010.02.002
  • 2 Nganga M, Lizarondo L, Krishnan J, Stephenson M. Management of full thickness rotator cuff tears in the elderly: a systematic review protocol. JBI Database System Rev Implement Rep. 2018;16(8):1628-1633. doi:10.11124/JBISRIR-2017-003596
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