As a highly complex joint, the shoulder is vulnerable to a number of conditions that can cause snapping, popping, or clicking. In most cases, these sensations are harmless, but if you’re experiencing pain or discomfort along with the popping in your shoulder, this could be a symptom of a more serious orthopedic condition. We’ve identified some common causes of this popping sensation to help you better understand what might be affecting your shoulder.
The Anatomy of the Shoulder
The shoulder joint is composed of four different moving parts: the glenohumeral, sternoclavicular, acromioclavicular, and scapulothoracic joints. Each is attached to a variety of muscles, ligaments, and tendons, all of which work together to ensure the shoulder’s stability. An injury to either the joint or any of the structures surrounding it can cause clicking or popping.
Painless popping or clicking is often caused by simply moving the joint. Since most joints are subject to cavitation, or the escape of gas from the joint, moving or contracting them can produce a distinctive cracking sound. This sound can be heard whenever you crack your knuckles, but the cavitation responsible for it is usually harmless. In addition, any popping that occurs when exercising or weightlifting could be a symptom of a SLAP tear, but it generally indicates that the muscles and tendons simply need to be stretched.
Rotating the shoulder should never cause pain. If it’s accompanied by significant discomfort, popping or clicking might be symptoms of a more serious injury. Common causes of this painful popping include labral tears, rotator cuff tears, shoulder dislocations, and arthritis. Your typical workout routines, age, and any recent history of trauma can help your doctor identify the specific condition.
Labral tears or SLAP tears occur when the labrum, a piece of fibrocartilage that holds the socket of the shoulder joint in place, is torn from the bone. This often results from injury or repetitive stress to the area such as the stress usually caused by weightlifting. It can cause pain when the shoulder is rotated, and the loose labrum can create a snapping or popping sound after catching in the joint. Depending on the severity of the injury, physical therapy and rest can be enough to alleviate symptoms, but in more serious cases, arthroscopic shoulder surgery may be necessary.
The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons surrounding the shoulder joint that work to keep the head of the humerus firmly within the socket of the shoulder joint. If these tendons are torn, the shoulder can be loosened and catch on other ligaments or structures, leading to a painful snapping or popping, extreme weakness in the muscles, and, in some cases, an inability to raise the arm. Rotator cuff tears can also lead to inflammation in the bursa — the sac between the joint and the surrounding bones, tendons, and ligaments.
Shoulder dislocation is a very common source of popping in the shoulder. It occurs when the ball of the upper arm bone is torn out of the shoulder socket. As it slides across or around the edge of the socket, it can create clicking or popping sensations. A persistent shoulder dislocation or a partial dislocations (or subluxation) can also lead to weakness in the arm or shoulder, known as a”dead arm” as well as reduced mobility.
While these are common causes of painful popping in the shoulder, a number of other conditions could also be responsible for it. If you’re suffering from pain and popping in your shoulder, contact an orthopedic specialist today to receive a formal diagnosis.