Healthy shoulders are something most of us take for granted. Unless you are a baseball or softball pitcher or competitive swimmer, or work in an occupation that requires a lot of repetitive lifting or overhead reaching activities, you probably haven’t ever really experienced significant shoulder pain.

If this is the case, count yourself among the fortunate. Shoulder problems, left untreated, can be painful, and eventually lead to decreased upper body mobility.

Causes and Symptoms of Shoulder Pain

Pain in the shoulder usually occurs in an area called the rotator cuff (i.e., the muscles and tendons that cover the top of your upper arm bone and attach it to your shoulder blade) and can be mild to severe. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, pain in the rotator cuff area may be a result of:

  • Tendinitis. The rotator cuff tendons can be irritated or damaged.
  • Bursitis. The bursa can become inflamed and swell with more fluid causing pain.
  • Impingement. When you raise your arm to shoulder height, the space between the acromion and rotator cuff narrows. The acromion can rub against (or “impinge” on) the tendon and the bursa, causing irritation and pain.

The AAOS describes symptoms as follows:

Rotator cuff pain commonly causes local swelling and tenderness in the front of the shoulder. You may have pain and stiffness when you lift your arm. There may also be pain when the arm is lowered from an elevated position.

Beginning symptoms may be mild. Patients frequently do not seek treatment at an early stage. These symptoms may include:

  • Minor pain that is present both with activity and at rest
  • Pain radiating from the front of the shoulder to the side of the arm
  • Sudden pain with lifting and reaching movements
  • Athletes in overhead sports may have pain when throwing or serving a tennis ball

As the problem progresses, the symptoms increase:

  • Pain at night
  • Loss of strength and motion
  • Difficulty doing activities that place the arm behind the back, such as buttoning or zippering

If the pain comes on suddenly, the shoulder may be severely tender. All movement may be limited and painful.

Risk Factors

Who is at risk for shoulder pain? Certainly people who perform a lot of overhead movements with their arms such as athletes involved in swimming, baseball, football, volleyball and tennis, and those who may repeatedly lift objects, hang things, paint or do construction. While risk factors exist, shoulder pain can also occur for no apparent reason.

Exercises to Keep Shoulders Healthy

The AAOS offers a series of exercises to improve shoulder strength and flexibility. The American College of Sports Medicine also offers a variety of exercises to help strengthen the rotator cuff specifically.

Most of these exercises can be performed at home with no special equipment needed. Those who are concerned about injuring themselves, or need more assistance can also work with a physical therapist. Those suffering from certain medical conditions should consult their physician before starting any exercise regimen.


A variety of surgical and non-surgical options exist for treating shoulder pain. Your medical provider can help you determine what is causing your pain and recommend treatment options. Don’t let shoulder pain keep you from doing the things you love. If you’re experiencing pain in your shoulders, please contact our office at 707.823.7602 to schedule an appointment to be seen.