The type of treatment offered for your shoulder pain will depend on the underlying cause and your symptoms. Options such as heat or ice packs and painkillers may help reduce pain and treat minor injuries at home.
You should see your doctor if your pain is the result of an injury, it’s particularly bad, or if there is no sign of the pain improving after a couple of weeks.
Your doctor may refer you to an orthopaedic surgeon (a specialist in conditions that affect the bones and muscles) or rheumatologist (a specialist in conditions that affect the muscles and joints) if you have:
a frozen shoulder that does not improve after six months
a rotator cuff disorder that does not improve after three to six months
an acromioclavicular joint disorder that does not improve after three months
a rotator cuff tear
shoulder instability and you are under 30 years old
The main treatment options for shoulder pain include:
avoiding activities that make your symptoms worse
using ice packs
surgery (in some cases)
These are described in more detail below.
As well as pain, you may also have reduced strength or movement in your shoulder. In this case, a combination of different treatments may be used.
Depending on what is causing your shoulder pain, your doctor may recommend you avoid certain activities or movements that may make your symptoms worse.
For example, in the early, painful stage of frozen shoulder, you may be advised to avoid activities that involve lifting your arms above your head. However, you should continue using your shoulder for other activities, because keeping it still could make your symptoms worse.
If you have shoulder instability, you may be advised to avoid any movements that are likely to make the instability worse, such as overarm throwing.
If you have sprained your acromioclavicular joint (the joint at the top of your shoulder), you may be advised to avoid moving your arm across your body. You may also be given a sling (a supportive bandage) to wear to support your arm for up to a week after your injury.
If you injure your shoulder, for example while playing sport, you can apply an ice pack to the affected area to reduce inflammation and pain.
You should apply the ice pack for 10-30 minutes. A bag of frozen peas, or similar, will also work well. Wrap the ice pack in a towel to avoid it directly touching your skin and causing ice burn.
If your pain is mild, taking painkillers such as paracetamol or codeine may be enough to control it. Always follow the dosage instructions on the packet to ensure the medicine is suitable and that you do not take too much.
If your shoulder pain is more severe, your doctor may recommend or prescribe a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) such as ibuprofen, diclofenac or naproxen.
As well as easing the pain, NSAIDs can also help reduce swelling in your shoulder capsule. They are most effective when taken regularly rather than when your symptoms are most painful.
Corticosteroids are medicines that contain steroids, which are a type of hormone. Hormones are powerful chemicals that have a wide range of effects on the body, including reducing swelling and pain.
You may be prescribed corticosteroid tablets for frozen shoulder. Some evidence suggests these may provide short-term pain relief for a few weeks. However, it is not clear whether corticosteroid tablets are any better than other treatment options, such as corticosteroid injections. Corticosteroid tablets can also cause a number of side effects.
If your shoulder pain is severe, such as in certain cases of frozen shoulder, painkillers may not be enough to control the pain. In this case, you may have corticosteroids injected into and around your shoulder joint.
Corticosteroid injections can help relieve pain caused by frozen shoulder and increase your range of movement for several weeks at a time, particularly during the first stage of symptoms. However, the injections cannot cure your condition completely and your symptoms will gradually return.
Research also suggests that corticosteroid injections can provide pain relief for up to eight weeks for tendonitis (inflammation of a tendon). They may also improve your ability to use your shoulder, although they may not be as effective as some other treatments, such as NSAIDs.
One study found corticosteroid injections may be most effective if used within 12 weeks of tendonitis symptoms starting. However, some experts believe the use of corticosteroid injections should be delayed for as long as possible.
After having a corticosteroid injection, you may experience side effects at the site of the injection. These may include:
lightening of your skin
thinning of your skin
Having too many corticosteroid injections can damage your shoulder. Therefore, you may only be able to have this treatment up to three times in the same shoulder in one year.
Hyaluronate is another medicine that can be injected into your shoulder to treat shoulder pain. One review of a number of studies found that hyaluronate was effective at reducing pain.
If you are referred to a physiotherapist, they should explain to you what treatment they will use and how it will work. Learn more about physiotherapy.
Possible treatments include:
massage – where the physiotherapist uses their hands to manipulate your shoulder
laser therapy – where the energy from lasers is used to stimulate your nervous system and reduce pain
transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)
TENS is a type of physiotherapy where small electrical pads (electrodes) are stuck to the skin over your shoulder. The TENS machine delivers small pulses of electricity through the electrodes, which numb the nerve endings and control your pain.
As well as these treatment methods, your physiotherapist may also recommend shoulder exercises specific to your needs. For example, if you have shoulder instability, you may be given exercises that will strengthen your shoulder.
If you have shoulder pain, it is important to keep your shoulder joint mobile by doing gentle, regular exercise. Not using your shoulder can cause your muscles to waste away and may make any stiffness worse. Therefore, if possible, you should continue using your shoulder as normal.
If your shoulder is very stiff, exercise may be painful. Your doctor or physiotherapist can give you exercises to do without further damaging your shoulder.
You may be given exercises to do on your own, or you may complete the exercises with supervision from your doctor or physiotherapist. You may also have manual therapy, where the healthcare professional moves your arm for you. Manual therapy uses special techniques to move the joints and soft tissues in your shoulder.
One review of a number of studies found long-term physiotherapy was as effective as surgery for impingement syndrome (any type of damage to the tendons in the rotator cuff).
Surgery for frozen shoulder
If other treatments for frozen shoulder have not worked, you may be referred for surgery. There are two possible surgical procedures explained in more detail below.
Manipulation involves having your shoulder moved while you are under general anaesthetic. During the procedure, your shoulder will be gently moved and stretched while you are asleep.
Afterwards, you will usually need to have physiotherapy to help maintain mobility in your shoulder. Manipulation may be used if you are finding the pain and disability from your shoulder difficult to cope with.
Arthroscopic capsular release
An alternative procedure to manipulation is arthroscopic capsular release. This is a type of keyhole, or non-invasive, surgery. The surgeon will carry out the procedure after making an incision that is less than 1cm (0.4in) long. A special probe opens up your contracted shoulder capsule and any bands of scar tissue are removed. This should greatly improve your symptoms.
As with manipulation, you will need physiotherapy after the surgery to help you regain a full range of movement in your shoulder joint.
Surgery for a rotator cuff tear
Surgery may be used to treat rotator cuff tears if the tear is large or if other treatment options have not worked after three to six months. It is possible that having surgery earlier will lead to a quicker recovery, although at the moment there is not enough research into whether early surgery is beneficial or not.
During the procedure, a small amount may be shaved off the bones in your shoulder. Damaged tendons and bursae (fluid-filled sacs found over joints and between tendons and bones) may also be removed. This creates more space within the joint to allow your rotator cuff to move freely.
The operation can be performed as:
open surgery – a large incision is made in your shoulder
mini-open surgery – a small incision is made in your shoulder
arthroscopic surgery – a type of keyhole surgery that uses a camera to look inside your shoulder joint
Evidence suggests that people return to work about a month earlier if they have mini-open surgery rather than open surgery.
As with frozen shoulder surgery, you will need physiotherapy after your operation to help you regain a full range of movement in your shoulder joint.
Surgery for shoulder instability
If your shoulder dislocates (the ball comes out of the socket) regularly or severely, you may need surgery to prevent it happening again and to prevent surrounding tissues and nerves from becoming damaged. Depending on the type of instability you have, surgery may involve:
tightening stretched ligaments or reattaching them if they have torn (ligaments are tough bands of connective tissue that link two bones together at a joint)
tightening the shoulder capsule by using heat to shrink it or tightening it with sutures (stitches)
Surgery for shoulder instability can either be done using keyhole or open surgery. After the operation, your shoulder will need to be immobilised (prevented from moving) using a special sling for several weeks. You will also need physiotherapy to improve your strength. Full recovery may take several months.