Don’t shrug off shoulder pain

March 24, 2011 By Robert Belniak, M.D.

You may not give your shoulders much thought until a stiff, aching joint makes activities like carrying groceries or buckling a child into a car seat nearly impossible. The shoulder is capable of a wider and more varied range of motion than any other joint in your body, yet its flexibility is what makes it vulnerable to instability and injury. Shoulder pain is one of the most common reasons people in the United States see a doctor!

Shouldering the pain
Shoulder problems from overuse can creep up over time or they can occur after a burst of activity like raking leaves in early fall. Tendons and ligaments become swollen or inflamed, causing tendinitis or bursitis. Very inflamed tendons can thicken and become pinched by surrounding structures, causing a condition called impingement syndrome. Repetitive motion, aging and arthritis can also contribute to shoulder pain as surrounding tissues begin to wear down.

Signs of these conditions include ongoing shoulder pain, stiffness or discomfort; mild to severe pain when you raise your arm; and difficulty lying on your shoulder or sleeping. Have these conditions treated early to head off more serious problems later. For instance, if pain is preventing you from using your shoulder to its full extent, you can develop frozen shoulder, which restricts your range of motion even more.

A torn rotator cuff—a group of tendons in your shoulder—is also a common cause of pain and restricted motion. It can slowly develop over time or result from an injury. Treatment may include rest, anti-inflammatories, ultrasound and physical therapy. Severe cases may require surgery. At The Hospital of Central Connecticut, the vast majority of shoulder conditions requiring surgery are treated as an outpatient with arthroscopic (small-incision), minimally-invasive procedures.

Protect your shoulders
Take the following measures to avoid shoulder pain and injury in the first place:
• Exercise and stretch regularly to keep your shoulder muscles and joints strong.
• Listen to mom's advice: Standing up straight promotes good posture, preventing future problems.
• Take regular breaks at work if your job involves repetitive motion or sitting at a computer all day. Briefly stretching your back and shoulders during the workday can help, too.
• If activity causes soreness or stiffness, give your shoulder adequate rest before engaging in the activity again.
• Ease into a sport you've been away from for a time. For instance, don't spend hours on the tennis court if you haven't played since last summer. Tennis players, swimmers and ballplayers have the highest risk of shoulder injuries.

See your healthcare provider if you have shoulder pain that is severe, doesn't improve or occurs as the result of a fall or an injury.

Robert Belniak, M.D., is an orthopedic surgeon at The Hospital of Central Connecticut with expertise in minimally invasive and arthroscopic shoulder surgery.