Shoulder pain can point to a variety of conditions, some of which may require a doctor’s intervention.
The shoulder is a complex joint, and unfortunately prone to injury. But when should you seek a doctor’s diagnosis for your discomfort? If you have one or more of the following symptoms, you may want to ask an orthopedic specialist about how you can find relief.
The shoulder is a highly mobile joint, and susceptible to instability if the cartilage degenerates. Repetitive motion or strain can mean there is greater risk for instability, especially for athletes. You likely have an unstable shoulder if, when you lift your arm overhead, you experience a “slipping” sensation or brief pain. Instability can also cause your arm to feel numb, as with a pinched nerve.
If you’re experiencing shoulder instability, one likely diagnosis is a dislocated shoulder. It’s best to seek treatment as soon as possible to avoid aggravating the condition. If you’ve experienced a shoulder dislocation before, your current instability is likely related, as a previous dislocation can cause continued weakness in the joint. Your doctor will reset the shoulder, then you’ll need to keep the arm immobilized until pain and swelling subside.
Is the popping in your shoulder driving you crazy? In some cases you don’t have to worry — this symptom may be related to harmless cavitation, or gas bubbles leaving the joint, similar to what happens when you crack your knuckles. Popping can also indicate tight muscles, another common condition that poses no cause for concern.
However, if the clicking is associated with pain or discomfort, you should talk to a doctor. The pain could be due to a tear in the labrum (a piece of cartilage that keeps the shoulder socket in place). Injury or repetitive stress, sometimes due to sports or weightlifting, can cause a shoulder labrum (or SLAP) tear, and the loose cartilage creates both pain and a snapping sound as the shoulder rotates. Your doctor will check your range of motion, perform imaging tests, and start you on a regimen of physical therapy and pain medication, although reparative surgery may be necessary in some cases.
Pain in the shoulder can have many causes. It may appear suddenly, in the case of a traumatic injury, or worsen over time due to repetitive motion. If your shoulder pain did not arise from trauma, you may want to ask your doctor about the possibility of shoulder impingement. This condition affects the rotator cuff tendons, which stabilize and move the shoulder. If the tendons become inflamed, or if the acromion grows a bone spur, the tendons begin to rub or pinch, especially when the arm is lifted overhead. When left unaddressed, this condition can lead to a rotator cuff tear or frozen shoulder.
You should consult your doctor about a treatment plan before the pain worsens, so that you can begin to heal through rest and physical therapy. In some cases you may need corticosteroid injections, or surgery on the clavicle or damaged muscles.
NUMBNESS AND WEAKNESS
Numbness in the shoulder or arm is generally accompanied by a tingling feeling known as paresthesias, or the loss of sensation altogether. This can have many causes, such simple overuse or sleeping on your shoulder at an awkward angle. However, persistent numbness may indicate that the nerves are compressed or damaged, or that blood flow has been cut off. It can also be a sign of inflammation or infection.
If you have a traumatic injury that causes numbness and weakness, you should see an orthopedic specialist as soon as possible. Falling on the shoulder is the most common cause of AC joint separation, in which the ligaments connecting the collarbone and acromion are sprained or torn. Depending on the severity of the injury, you may need pain medication, rest, and physical therapy, or in some cases surgical intervention.
Numbness and weakness can also point to weightlifter’s shoulder, which can result from repetitive stress and worsen over time. If your symptoms are most severe after using your shoulder, such as after a workout, visit your doctor. A conservative treatment plan will include rest and physical therapy to avoid further aggravating the area, although surgery to remove part of the clavicle may be necessary.
Swelling is associated with many traumatic shoulder conditions, as flooding an inflamed area with fluid and white blood cells is often the body’s response to injury. Typical treatment includes rest, applying ice, compressing the area, and elevating the injury above the heart. This can control the symptoms, but you should be sure to talk to a doctor about the underlying cause.
Your swelling may be due to a shoulder sprain or torn ligament. Athletes are especially prone to torn ligaments, due to repeated collisions and falls. Your doctor can diagnose the severity of the sprain, and mild injuries may become less painful within a week or two. In more severe cases, you’ll need to limit physical activities for six weeks to a few months.
If your symptoms lead you to believe you may have suffered from one of these injuries, set up an appointment with an orthopedic specialist as soon as possible. Dr. Popovitz is experienced in treating shoulder injuries, and provides a personalized recovery plan for every patient. The specialists at New York Bone & Joint will ensure that you receive the best possible care, minimizing the chance of future injury.