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Should I See a Doctor for my Shoulder Pain?

shoulder pain
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From a SLAP tear to tendonitis, here’s what may be causing your shoulder pain — and how to treat it.

Given the shoulder’s complex structure of bone, muscle, and tendons, it’s not unusual to feel occasional pain in the joint. Made up of three major bones — the humerus or upper arm bone, the shoulder blade (scapula), and the collarbone (clavicle) — the shoulder gets its flexibility from a ball nestled in the scapula’s socket, which is held in place by ligaments. Overlaying the shoulder are the rotator cuff muscles and tendons that enable you to lift and reach for objects.

The ball-and-socket design of the shoulder allows you to move your arms in every direction — but it also makes the joint vulnerable to overuse, degeneration, and injury. So how do you know when a sore shoulder requires a doctor’s visit to manage the discomfort? 

In general, mild pain can be reduced by rest, modifying your activity level, and taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication. Conversely, severe pain, stiffness that prevents you from performing everyday tasks, or a deformed shoulder shape may signal it’s time to visit an orthopedic specialist to diagnose the problem.

What’s Causing Your Shoulder Pain?

Getting a correct diagnosis is important because shoulder-area pain might not be directly related to the shoulder joint. After a physical exam and imaging tests, your doctor will be able to determine if your discomfort is caused by one of these four common shoulder disorders.

SLAP Tear

Lining the shoulder socket is a rim of cartilage called the labrum. A “superior labral tear from anterior to posterior,” or SLAP tear, may occur when you try to break a fall with your hand. People who play sports with repetitive overhead movements, like baseball, frequently suffer SLAP tears as well. In addition to pain, SLAP tears cause a popping sound when you move your arm. To alleviate the symptoms of this condition, physical therapy is recommended if the tear is minor and the shoulder is stable. Since SLAP tears don’t usually heal on their own, you may need arthroscopic surgery to repair a severely torn labrum if conservative treatments are not successful.

Rotator Cuff Tear

A rotator cuff tear is a rupture in the tendons that attach the humerus to the socket bone. It’s different from rotator cuff tendonitis, which is an inflammation in the tendons. Yet both may cause pain that tends to intensify at night. Treatment depends on the severity of the tear. Large, traumatic tears may require surgery, while smaller ones can be treated with physical therapy and pain medication.

Frozen Shoulder

A frozen shoulder, otherwise known as adhesive capsulitis, is caused by an irritation in the connective tissue surrounding the shoulder joint.  As its name implies, a frozen shoulder is characterized by limited range of motion in the joint. Often the result of rotator cuff tendonitis, the condition progresses through three stages during which the shoulder gradually becomes less painful and stiff. Physical therapy to strengthen the muscles and help regain flexibility can restore joint function.

Biceps Tendonitis

If you’ve suffered a rotator cuff or SLAP tear you might also have biceps tendonitis, an inflammation of the tendons connecting the biceps to the shoulder joint. Common characteristics of biceps tendonitis include pain radiating from the front of the shoulder and along the upper arm; a popping or snapping sound in the joint; and a feeling of weakness in the shoulder. A therapy program for the condition features rest, physical therapy to increase range of motion, anti-inflammatories, corticosteroid injections, and icing.

Treating Shoulder Pain

Although SLAP tears and rotator cuff tears may, in some cases, necessitate surgery, most of these shoulder injuries are treated with physical therapy, medication, and rest. If you’re experiencing shoulder pain, the experienced doctors and care staff at New York Bone & Joint Specialists can diagnose the cause and recommend a treatment plan. Schedule your appointment today.

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