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Don’t Ignore That Shoulder Pain: When to See Your Doctor

It’s easy to brush off shoulder pain, thinking it’s just a pulled muscle that will resolve on its own. But while minor shoulder aches may go away with rest and over-the-counter meds, persistent or worsening pain should not be ignored. Certain shoulder problems require medical treatment to properly heal and avoid complications. Knowing when to see a doctor can help you nip shoulder issues in the bud.

Sharp, Sudden Pain

A sudden onset of severe shoulder pain after an injury or seemingly out of the blue is a major red flag. Possible causes that require prompt medical evaluation include:

  • Rotator cuff tear – Damaged tendons cause acute pain with certain motions.
  • Dislocated shoulder – The upper arm bone is knocked out of the socket, causing instant pain.
  • Fracture – Broken bones in the shoulder complex cause severe, disabling pain.
  • Frozen shoulder – Inflammation stiffens the shoulder capsule, leading to rapid pain.

Don’t delay treatment for sudden, sharp shoulder pain. Seeing a doctor quickly can facilitate proper healing before a minor injury becomes worse.

Pain Disrupting Sleep

Shoulder pain that disturbs your sleep or makes it impossible to lie on the affected side is not normal. Some conditions causing nighttime shoulder pain include:

  • Arthritis – Damaged cartilage and bone spurs cause pain, especially when lying on the shoulder.
  • Bursitis – Inflamed bursa sacs swell and hurt more when compressed at night.
  • Partial dislocation – The shoulder can become unstable and partially slip out at night.
  • Rotator cuff tear – Attempting to sleep on a torn tendon causes you to jolt awake in pain.

Persistent night shoulder pain prevents quality rest and indicates a potentially serious injury or condition needing treatment. Don’t ignore it.

limited Range of Motion

Restricted shoulder mobility, particularly overhead, warrants medical care. Causes of limited range of motion include:

  • Adhesive capsulitis – The shoulder capsule becomes inflamed and stiff, restricting movement.
  • Impingement – Pinched rotator cuff tendons under the shoulder bones greatly reduces mobility.
  • Labral tear – Damaged cartilage in the shoulder socket catches, causing pain and locking.
  • Calcific tendinitis – Calcium deposits in the rotator cuff prohibit full overhead motion.

Treating the underlying cause of limited shoulder mobility – whether it’s bursitis, tendinitis, or torn soft tissues – helps restore normal function.

Trauma and Injury

Any type of shoulder injury, such as:

  • Sports impacts – Checks into the boards in hockey or hits in football can lead to tears and fractures.
  • Falls – Breaking a fall with an outstretched arm often causes shoulder dislocations and rotator cuff tears.
  • Car accidents – The shoulder slamming against the body can cause acute trauma.
  • Assaults – Punches or other blows directly to the shoulder require medical assessment.

Don’t “walk off” an injured shoulder before getting it checked out. Severe tears or fractures may need surgery for proper healing.

Significant Swelling

Obvious shoulder swelling without a recent injury raises concerns. Some potential causes of abnormal swelling include:

  • Bursitis – The fluid-filled bursa sacs become severely inflamed.
  • Tendinitis – Swelling of inflamed tendons like the biceps tendon.
  • Arthritis – Damaged cartilage releases inflammatory chemicals, causing swelling.
  • Infection – Fluid buildup, redness, and warmth point to a possible deep infection.

Don’t ignore an unexplained swollen shoulder, which needs medical diagnosis and care to reduce inflammation.

Weakness and Instability

Sudden shoulder weakness or feeling like your shoulder might “give out” is not normal. Reasons for concern include:

  • Rotator cuff tears – Damaged tendons cause profound weakness and shoulder instability.
  • Recurrent dislocations – The shoulder is vulnerable to repeat dislocations after an initial injury.
  • Nerve injury – Pinched nerves running to the upper arm and shoulder cause weakness.

Regaining shoulder strength depends on an accurate diagnosis. Prompt treatment is key to healing tendon tears or stabilizing recurrent dislocations.

Referred Pain

Sometimes shoulder pain originates from another part of the body, like the:

  • Neck – Pinched nerves in the neck and spine can radiate pain into the shoulder and arm.
  • Lungs – Pneumonia or other lung issues cause shoulder pain.
  • Heart – Angina often causes left shoulder and arm pain.
  • Abdomen – Gallbladder, pancreas, or liver problems refer pain to the shoulder.

Report any shoulder pain accompanied by shortness of breath, abdominal symptoms, or pain down the arm to your doctor. Referred shoulder pain indicates an underlying medical issue needing treatment.

When in Doubt, Get Checked Out

Severe, persistent, or unexplained shoulder pain should never be ignored. To properly diagnose the cause of shoulder pain and provide the right treatment, see your doctor if you have:

  • Sudden acute pain after injury
  • Ongoing night pain disrupting sleep
  • Restricted mobility and overhead movement
  • Unexplained swelling not improving with rest
  • Traumatic injury from sports, falls, accidents
  • Persistent weakness, instability, or popping
  • Pain referred from the neck, heart, or abdomen

Don’t risk a minor shoulder problem turning into a larger one. Getting checked out leads to accurate diagnosis and treatment so you can get back to pain-free shoulder function. Listen to your body and see your doctor if shoulder pain persists.