Sudden Shoulder Pain: Causes, Treatment and Prevention

Sudden shoulder pain

Many of you might have experienced some discomfort in the shoulder or sudden shoulder pain at some point in your life. Shoulder pain without injury is very common in the US.

Around 67% of US people experience sudden shoulder pain at some point in their lives. The shoulder is one of the most mobile joints of your body.

It enables the body to perform different actions. But this mobility demands a lot of stability and therefore shoulders are prone to injuries.

Injuries can be severe or light and can be due to multiple reasons. The causes include falling off, strenuous exercises, neck injury, joint injury, muscle pull, bone damage, infection etc.

Related Reading: Shoulder Blade Pain: 12 Possible Causes and Treatments

Causes of Sudden Shoulder Pain

Let us see what causes sudden shoulder pain:

1. Rotator Cuff Tendonitis

This is one of the most common reasons for sudden shoulder pain. There are tendons and muscles attached to the bones in our shoulders.

The rotator cuff keeps the upper arm bone centered on the shoulder and facilitates arm activities. When these parts are injured or inflamed, it is called Rotator Cuff Tendonitis or Impingement Syndrome.

This condition is more common in athletes. It also develops when you keep your shoulder in one position for too long while sleeping or doing some other activities.

Here, the shoulder blade top pressurizes the softer tissues beneath, and so you cannot move your arms freely. At times, this is caused without any reason. A more serious condition can also tear the rotator cuff.

This condition is also known as:

  • Swimmer’s Shoulder
  • Pitcher’s Shoulder
  • Tennis Shoulder

Below listed are few symptoms of Rotator Cuff Tendinitis:

  • Sudden pain in shoulders and arms
  • Swelling in shoulders and arms
  • Pain on lifting objects
  • Sound while moving arms
  • Stiffness in activities
  • Weak arms and shoulders

Related Reading: Numbness, Pain, and Tingling in the Left Arm

2. Rotator Cuff Tears

Sudden shoulder pain can also be due to Rotator Cuff tear. It happens when the shoulder is strained by repetitive motion or from a jerky fall or landing.

This pain is sudden and unbearable. It can worsen over time if not treated urgently. The only remedy for this is rest and cold/ hot pack application.

3. Frozen Shoulder

Most of the times when people experience sudden shoulder pain, they assume ‘frozen shoulder’ as one of the reasons.

When the connecting tissue to your shoulder joint gets swollen, you get frozen shoulder. Due to this sudden shoulder pain, you cannot lift arms or do any shoulder movements. This happens over time.

You observe weaker reflexes in your shoulder and all of a sudden, it gets serious. Reason for frozen shoulder is still unknown. But broadly, science has held few conditions responsible for frozen shoulder. Diabetics or people suffering from thyroid and Parkinson’s are more prone to develop frozen shoulder.

Frozen shoulder  has three stages:

  • Freezing
  • Frozen
  • Thawing

Usually, a frozen shoulder gets cured without any treatment. What all you need is hot/cold pack applications. But it takes a long time, for about a year, to heal completely. You can also opt for physiotherapy.

4. Bursitis

Bursae are fluid-filled sacs that are situated in joints. It is found in the whole body. It acts as a cushion between the muscles and bones and allows gliding. When the bursa in shoulder gets inflamed, you suffer from bursitis.

It happens when you overdo some exercise or overexert like lifting the weight over your head repeatedly.

This provides more fluid to the bursa which is originally flat. This fluid causes the bursa to blow up and therefore it causes swelling known as bursitis.

Lifting your arms over your head is what causes sudden shoulder pain. Bursitis is usually accompanied by Rotator Cuff Tendinitis.

Treatment for this sudden shoulder pain is generally rest, ice or heat application, and physical exercises like stretching shoulders. Stretching helps increasing motion and reducing swelling.

5. Shoulder Dislocation

Shoulder instability is the major reason for shoulder dislocation. It is when the ball of the shoulder joint becomes loose and slips out of the socket. The shoulder has high mobility but dislocation of the shoulder is also common due to it.

Partial dislocation (subluxation) is also possible. It happens when the top of the humerus slips out but then pops in again. In this condition, the shoulder feels loose and some positions like arm raising are very uncomfortable.

Complete dislocation is when the humerus completely separates from the socket. Both these conditions are an outcome of a Shoulder Trauma such as a bumpy fall or landing or a blow. These situations exert your muscles and ligaments causing a dislocation.

In this situation, the doctor can only tell you how to treat shoulder pain. If ignored, this can also damage your ligaments, blood vessels, and nerves. An X-ray shall give a perfect idea about the intensity of the injury. Your treatment may include having your shoulder tied in a string for few days.

The doctor will fix the ball of the joint back and may suggest you some injections or medications along with rest. Physical therapy is mostly recommended here to tighten the ligaments and gain full mobility.

6. Labral Tears

Mostly athletes suffer from a labrum tear. The labrum is a thin frame of cartilage around the edge of the socket of the shoulder. It helps in maintaining stability and motion of the shoulder.

Many times one goes totally unaware of the tear as at times there are no symptoms of the injury. But in other cases, it triggers shoulder pain especially while moving the arms. This condition is observed more in middle-aged people.

If the labrum is still joined to the socket, physical therapy may be recommended. However, if the labrum is separated and the tears are critical, you may also have to opt for a surgery.

7. Clavicle Fracture

When your collarbone breaks, you are inflicted with a sudden shoulder pain. In the US, such fractures in adults are common. The breaks are caused by trauma due to falling or while working out.

Moving your arms become almost impossible. Other symptoms include sagging of the shoulder and a bump at the broken portion. Such injuries are very painful need urgent attention or else healing gets difficult.

If the break is bad and the bones have severely displaced, surgery may be recommended. The bones may also be fixed with plates and screws.

Some fractures can heal automatically through rest but others need active treatment. Physiotherapy helps you restore your strength along with giving you shoulder pain relief. 

8. Heart Attack

One of the most common causes of sudden shoulder pain is a heart attack. Pain in left arm or shoulder can be a glaring symptom of heart attack. The shoulder hurts as the pain is radiated from the chest.

You may also experience burning, pressure or stiffness in the shoulder for some time interval. Of course, other heart attack symptoms include nausea, sweating, breathlessness etc.

At times it becomes difficult to guess the correct cause of shoulder pain. If you experience pain in only a particular spot and it pains only while doing some movement or coughing; it is most probably shoulder injury and not an impending heart attack.

If your pain is only on the right shoulder then it is most likely not a heart attack. Heart attack pain is mostly on the left shoulder.

9. Arthritis

There are different types of arthritis. They are osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, fibromyalgia, and gout. Osteoarthritis is the most prevalent arthritis in shoulder pain. Sports activities generally lead to osteoarthritis.

It occurs from wear and tear of the shoulder. You experience sudden pain in shoulder and arms when the rubber cartilage between the bones gets damaged.

As it gets to break down, the bones rub each other during movements. You may also hear a snapping sound as you move your shoulder.

Rest, heat or ice along with muscle exercises are few natural treatments for shoulder pain. Steroid injections may also be recommended by the doctor.

Related Reading: Essential Oils for Arthritis, Joint Pain and Inflammation

Diagnosis of Shoulder Pain

We can often recognize the minor shoulder pain as it happens due to overexerting arms or sleeping in the wrong position. But when the pain is sudden without any reason, you need to call for medical assessment.

The physician will examine you by asking medical history, family history especially for diseases like diabetes, arthritis, and thyroid.

Diagnostic test like X-ray can be performed to detect the fracture, bone abnormalities, bone separation, or arthritis. Advanced tests like ultrasound and MRI give a clearer picture if the cause of pain is not detected.

An arthrogram is an advanced test used to detect structural problems in muscles and tendons. Blood tests are also used where necessary.

Natural Remedies for Shoulder Pain

Below listed are few natural treatments for shoulder pain:

1. Turmeric

Turmeric is an antiseptic and has anti-inflammatory advantages. You can have it orally or apply it topically.

Simplest and most effective turmeric hack involves mixing turmeric powder with a little olive oil or coconut oil to get a consistency like a paste. Apply this paste to the affected area.

Let it dry and then wash off with warm water. Repeat this remedy twice a day. To have it orally mix it with milk, boil it for few minutes, and then drink it when warm.

2. Garlic Massage

Garlic massage can heal sudden shoulder pain.Garlic has inflammatory properties. You can peel four to five garlic cloves and mash them.

Put mustard oil in a pan and add the mashed garlic to the heated oil. Massage this oil on the shoulder. Alternatively, you can also use garlic oil.

3. Ice Pack

Ice is a home remedy for inflammation of tendons and muscles. You can apply ice twice or thrice a day in the affected area. This helps cure the soreness.

4. Heat

You can also apply heat after consulting the doctor. It can also heal muscle inflammation.

5. Apple Cider Vinegar

Apple cider vinegar is very effective in treating varied health issues. It can also treat shoulder pain without injury. Basically, its alkaline agent relieves the pain.

You can drink a glass of warm water with a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar and honey each in it. You can have this twice a day and see results in a week.  

Related Reading: 12 Substitutes for Red Wine Vinegar and How to Use Them

How to Prevent Sudden Shoulder Pain?

 The following are few prevention measures you can take for shoulder pain:

  • Avoid sitting on the computer for a prolonged period. Tave small breaks in between.
  • Stretch your hands and legs during your work hours. This avoids muscle stiffness.
  • Keep your mobile and computer high at your face level while using them.
  • Exercise or work out in the gym only after being instructed by your trainer or doctor. Over-exercising or wrong postures while exercising can lead to sudden shoulder pain.
  • Neck pain often leads to shoulder pain. You need to turn your neck down or up to prevent neck and shoulder pain.
  • Stay hydrated as much as possible.
  • Watch standing and sitting postures. Incorrect posture may give you shoulder pain.

When to see a Doctor?

You need immediate doctor intervention for shoulder pain relief if the shoulder pain:

  • Deforms your joint
  • Is too high that you just cannot move your arms
  • Causes acute pain
  • Causes sudden inflammation or swelling
  • Gets aggravated with time.

Read Next:

Team Research “28 Causes of Shoulder Pain When Moving: Diagnosis and Relief”, Buoyhealth web site, September 7, 2017,
KarynRepinski “12 Reasons You Have Shoulder Pain–and What to Do About It”, Health web site, September 1, 2017,
“Shoulder Pain Signs & Symptoms, Diagnosis”, Health Communities web site, last accessed January 15, 2018 ,
“18 Helpul Home Remedies for Shoulder Pain”, Home remedy shacks web site, April 5, 2016

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