Shoulder Diagram

Your Shoulder

The ‘shoulder complex’ is made up of four joints and has many muscles which control movement of the arm and shoulder blade. There are also several shoulder ligaments which help make the joints more stable.

There is an arch over the top of the shoulder joint (gleno-humeral joint) consisting of the end of the shoulder blade (acromion) and the collar bone (clavicle). Between these two areas is the acromio-clavicular joint (ACJ). The space under this arch is called the sub-acromial space. This is where the tendons of the ‘rotator cuff’ muscles wrap around the head of the arm bone (humerus).

What causes shoulder pain?

Pain in your shoulder can come from the joint itself, the bones, muscles, ligaments, joint capsule, the bicep tendon or the rotator cuff tendons. Less commonly, it can also be caused by body parts away from the shoulder, such as the neck or internal organs, known as ‘referred pain’.

In many cases, new problems, or flare-ups of long-standing shoulder problems, should begin to settle within 6 weeks without the need to see a healthcare professional.

Shoulder problems can cause a range of symptoms including pain, stiffness and weakness. Shoulder problems are common and are often caused by simple things like:

  • taking off your coat
  • lifting something awkwardly
  • taking part in sport
  • a trip, injury or fall (trauma)

As you get older, normal age-related (degenerative) changes occur and these can lower the ability of the shoulder to tolerate the demands placed upon it. These changes may cause your shoulder pain to get worse now and again for no obvious reason.

When to seek help

Most of your symptoms should get better within 6 weeks. However, seek medical attention and speak to a healthcare professional as soon as possible if there’s been significant trauma, for example a fall from height or direct blow to the shoulder, and/or your pain is severe and preventing any shoulder movement at all.

General advice

Keeping active is an essential part of your recovery and is the single best thing you can do for your health.

Being physically active can:

  • maintain your current levels of fitness – even if you must modify what you normally do, any activity is better than none
  • keep your other muscles and joints strong and flexible
  • prevent a recurrence of the problem
  • help you aim for a healthy body weight

You should avoid sports or heavy lifting until you have less discomfort and good movement. Remember to warm up fully before you start sporting activities and consider seeking advice about returning to sport.

Below are links to more information about common conditions affecting the shoulder. Click on the image that best represents the area you have symptoms for more details.