Is My Shoulder Pain Actually Shoulder Arthritis?

Woman holding painful shoulder

Arthritis is a frequently overlooked cause of shoulder pain. Find out how you can determine if your shoulder pain is actually being caused by arthritis.

An aching shoulder is a common orthopedic complaint. But how do you know if the pain is caused by arthritis or another condition? Read on to learn more about shoulder arthritis — its symptoms and causes as well as treatment options — so you can figure out when it’s time to see an orthopedic specialist for full diagnosis. 

The Symptoms and Causes of Shoulder Arthritis

Your shoulder is one of the most flexible joints in your body, allowing you to lift, throw, reach, and so much more. The shoulder joint is made up of a ball (the humerus) that fits into the socket (the glenoid). It’s this ball-and-socket structure that allows you to rotate the shoulder.

Over time all those repeated shoulder motions wear down the cartilage cushioning the bones of the joint. As the cartilage wears away, osteoarthritis can develop, causing the bones to begin to grind together, which can lead to persistent pain and a limited range of movement. When this occurs, you may also hear a clicking sound when you move your shoulder.

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative disease that develops gradually as a person ages. As a result, it’s typically seen in people over 50. However, it can also occur more suddenly in certain situations. For example, a severe injury to the shoulder or the rotator cuff tendons holding the shoulder together can also lead to arthritis in the joint. For those suffering from osteoarthritis, the pain should only be in one shoulder, not both.

Osteoarthritis isn’t the only type of arthritis that can lead to shoulder pain though. Rheumatoid arthritis is another common cause of the pain. An autoimmune disease, rheumatoid arthritis occurs when the body’s defense mechanism attacks healthy tissue, such as joint cartilage. Unlike osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis may be present in both shoulders. Women of childbearing age (15 to 44) are more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis than any other demographic.

No matter which form of it you have, shoulder arthritis may feel similar to a frozen shoulder, another condition that causes an extremely limited range of motion in the joint. A frozen shoulder can develop over several years, starting with pain and then stiffness after the pain subsides. However, a frozen shoulder usually arises following a trauma to the joint unlike arthritis, which typically arises on its own. 

Treating Shoulder Arthritis

An orthopedic specialist can diagnose your shoulder pain by a physical examination and imaging tests such as an X-ray or MRI. With the image, your physician can see if the cartilage is thinner or completely worn away. The image may also capture any bone spurs around the joint.

Arthritis treatments begin with conservative methods to ease discomfort and increase range of motion. These include:

Physical Therapy. A physical therapist can guide you through exercises to strengthen the muscles around the joint. By strengthening the muscles, your shoulder will be able to move more freely.

Hot & Cold Therapy. For temporary pain relief, apply an ice pack to the joint several times a day. Apply heat to loosen the joint so it’s more flexible when you exercise the joint.

Medication. To control pain, you can take over-the-counter anti-inflammatories. A corticosteroid injection into the joint can also relieve pain.

Occupational Therapy. While you should avoid sporting activities that cause arthritic pain, you can modify your movements to ease the discomfort when performing daily tasks. A therapist can show you how to adapt your lifestyle to reduce pain.

If conservative methods fail to eliminate pain, your doctor may suggest surgery. For less severe cases of shoulder arthritis where some cartilage remains, arthroscopic shoulder debridement may be recommended. In this minimally invasive procedure, the surgeon cleans out, or debrides, the inside of the shoulder. Although this method does not cure arthritis, it can provide pain relief for many months.

If the arthritis has led to bone-on-bone friction, you may need a complete or partial shoulder replacement surgery. Either the entire shoulder joint or parts of it are removed and replaced with artificial components. You’ll need physical therapy following the surgery, but should regain full movement within months. 

Don’t Suffer with Shoulder Pain

Shoulder pain can be extremely painful and limit your daily activities.The specialists at New York Bone & Joint are experienced in shoulder conditions and will treat your shoulder arthritis so you can live pain-free again. Contact one of our offices today for a consultation.

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