Understanding Different Types of Shoulder Pain

Pain is a frequently reported symptom among patients with a shoulder injury. However, the type of pain you feel can be influenced by the kind of shoulder injury you have.

Each type of shoulder injury may often causes a different degree and sensation of pain. See Shoulder Injuries

Below are several descriptions of the type of pain you may feel, and shoulder injuries associated with these descriptions. Of course, it is recommended to see your doctor to get an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan.

If you have severe pain, you may have a shoulder fracture or a dislocated shoulder. In these cases, you should seek medical attention immediately.

See The 3 Types of Shoulder Fractures


1. Achy pain

Several shoulder injuries cause pain that is described as dull or deep achy pain, and the pain may be difficult to pinpoint. Consider the following injuries and conditions associated with this type of pain:

  • Rotator cuff tear can cause dull, achy shoulder pain. However, tears caused by a traumatic event may cause severe pain. A rotator cuff tear can be caused by a wearing down of the rotator cuff tendons over time or from a traumatic event, such as a fall.
  • See Rotator Cuff Injuries: Symptoms

  • SLAP tear, which is a tear to the cartilage that rings the shoulder’s socket, often causes a deep, achy shoulder pain that’s hard to pinpoint. Pain may be felt at the back of the shoulder; if the SLAP tear involves the biceps tendon, you may feel pain at the front of your shoulder. Some SLAP tears develop over time, whereas others result from an acute injury, like a fall.
  • See SLAP Tear Symptoms

  • Frozen shoulder is a shoulder condition that causes achy pain around the shoulder and sometimes in the upper arm. Pain tends to increase early on, before decreasing in later phases. The cause of this condition is unknown, but it usually affects people age 40 to 60.1

    See Frozen Shoulder Symptoms

  • Glenohumeral osteoarthritis, or arthritis of the shoulder joint, can cause deep, achy pain in the joint, as well as pain at the back of your shoulder.2 Osteoarthritis is a degenerative condition, meaning your cartilage wears down over time. Although this condition is most commonly found in adults over 50 years old, it’s also seen in younger people following a dislocated shoulder or fracture.2

Shoulder injuries that happen after a traumatic event, such as a fall or direct hit to the shoulder, can cause immediate, severe pain.

2. Radiating Pain

Sometimes shoulder injuries cause radiating pain in your arm or neck:

  • Arthritis in the joint at the top of your shoulder, called the acromioclavicular joint, can cause radiating pain in the neck.2 A common cause of acromioclavicular joint arthritis is overuse.
  • Rotator cuff tendonitis can result in pain radiating from the outside of your arm near the topmost part of your shoulder. This condition is caused by repetitive, overuse of your arm, as is common in sports like weightlifting and swimming.

See What Is the Difference Between Tendonitis, Tendinosis, and Tendinopathy?

Conversely, some neck injuries can cause radiating pain in your shoulder. Examples include a pinched nerve (cervical radiculopathy) and a brachial plexus injury, which refers to an injury to the group of nerves in your neck that travel through your arm.

See Blood and Nerve Supply of the Shoulder


3. Burning pain

Subacromial bursitis—when a bursa, a fluid-filled sac in your shoulder, is inflamed or irritated—may cause a burning sensation or a dull ache.3 You may also feel radiating pain in your upper arm. It’s important to note, however, subacromial bursitis may not be the entire reason for your pain. Pain associated with this condition may be caused by another shoulder injury, such as a rotator cuff tear.4

7 Possible Causes of Pain Under Your Shoulder Blade
7 Causes of Pain Under YourShoulder Blade
(larger view)

Pain and other symptoms

Shoulder pain usually comes with other symptoms, such as arm weakness, shoulder stiffness, and/or limited range of motion. For example, a weightlifter with a SLAP tear may have trouble lifting weights overhead. Athletes participating in repetitive, overhead sports, such as baseball, may notice a decrease in sports performance because of their SLAP tear or rotator cuff tear.

See SLAP Tear Shoulder Injury and Treatment

Pay close attention to the type and severity of your symptoms, including pain, to help your doctor diagnose and treat your injury.

Learn more:

A Broken Shoulder: Scapula Fracture

Rotator Cuff Tear Surgery