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Common Causes of Shoulder Pain and How to Ease Your Symptoms

October 3, 2012

Christopher Lathrop, OTD, MS, OTR/L is the director of rehabilitation at Masonicare Health Center in Wallingford. With a clinical specialty in upper extremity rehabilitation, Dr. Lathrop knows only too well how debilitating an achy, painful shoulder can be and how quickly it can affect one’s ability to perform even simple self-care tasks and household chores.  Here, Dr. Lathrop discusses the most common causes of shoulder pain and what can be done to help ease the symptoms. 

There are many causes of shoulder pain, so it is important that an accurate diagnosis be made of your symptoms so the appropriate treatment can be provided. Outlined below are three of the most common conditions that can cause shoulder pain and discomfort:

Osteoarthritis: Osteoarthritis is part of the normal aging process, and can frequently affect the shoulder, causing pain on the outside where you can ‘cup’ the shoulder with your hand. Osteoarthritis pain is characterized by stiffness, usually worst at night, early morning, or if your shoulder has been immobile for a while. Shoulder pain caused by osteoarthritis often decreases with active motion and by using the arm. A hot shower or warm compress may also help to relieve some of the symptoms.

Shoulder strain: Did you try to pick up something that was too heavy for you, without asking for help, and now your shoulder hurts? There are many muscles around the shoulder and through the shoulder joint that could have been strained. A strain is characterized by an episode of acute over-use, such as lifting something too heavy, pulling something, or reaching in an awkward manner.  The worst pain from a shoulder strain comes with use or motion and is usually relieved with rest. A cold pack and rest will help relieve some of these symptoms.  Unfortunately, pain from a shoulder strain can sometimes persist for more than two weeks.

Rotator Cuff: The rotator cuff is a set of four muscles that help control the shoulder and arm and maintain the integrity of the shoulder joint. These muscles tend to weaken and thin as we age. Rotator cuff pain is similar to shoulder strain pain, since the two pathologies are very similar, and the symptoms are often relieved with ice and rest. A consultation with an orthopedic surgeon is necessary if there was a complete tear of the rotator cuff, which is only detectable by an evaluation of the clinical symptoms and by the patient having an MRI.

Fortunately, physical therapy can be very helpful in relieving the pain and symptoms of all three shoulder pain syndromes. Physical therapists are skilled at helping to reduce pain and rebuild shoulder integrity. During the pain phase, there are machines and specific exercises that therapists can use effectively to reduce pain. Once some of the pain is gone, physical therapy can help to build muscle and joint integrity to prevent the injury from returning.

Masonicare provides outstanding physical therapy for shoulder pain and other conditions in the newly-renovated outpatient physical therapy department, and also provides occupational and speech therapy as well.  The department is conveniently located in Masonicare’s Medical Office Building on the main campus in Wallingford.  If you are experiencing persistent shoulder pain, be sure to visit your doctor for an examination.  And if physical therapy is recommended, ask for a referral to Masonicare.  Medicare, workers compensation and most commercial insurances are accepted.  For additional information or a consultation, please call 203-679-6909.  Please feel free to call and ask for Dr. Lathrop directly at 203-679-6909 with any questions or comments.  He’d be happy to assist you.