Red Flag Shoulder Pain: When to See a Doctor?

Shoulder pain is very common and is often caused by minor injuries or overuse. While most shoulder pain resolves on its own with rest, ice, over-the-counter anti-inflammatories, and avoiding activities that aggravate it, sometimes shoulder pain can indicate a more serious issue. Here are some “red flags” to watch out for that may indicate you need to see a doctor about sudden or persistent shoulder pain.


If your shoulder pain started after a significant trauma like a car accident or a fall, it’s important to get it checked out. Trauma can lead to dislocations, fractures, rotator cuff tears and other injuries that require proper diagnosis and treatment. Don’t assume that just because you can still move your shoulder that it’s fine. See a doctor, especially if the pain is severe or persistent.

Sudden and Severe Pain

Typically shoulder pain comes on gradually, but if you experience a sudden, intense shoulder pain when you weren’t doing any strenuous activity, that’s a red flag. Sudden and severe shoulder pain can indicate issues like a torn rotator cuff, dislocation, infection, blood clots, bone fractures, or tumors. Seek prompt medical attention for evaluation.

Loss of Motion and Function

While some shoulder pain and stiffness is expected with minor injuries, if your range of motion is significantly limited you should see a doctor. Inability to lift your arm over your head, put on a shirt, or reach behind your back indicates a possible serious issue like a torn rotator cuff or frozen shoulder syndrome. Persistent loss of strength or function needs medical assessment.

Swelling and Bruising

Significant swelling in and around the shoulder joint along with bruises may indicate a possible fracture, tear or dislocation. Some minor swelling can occur with overuse injuries, but major swelling along with pain warrants medical evaluation. The doctor will examine the shoulder and may order x-rays or an MRI.

Fever, Chills and Illness

Shoulder pain accompanied by fever, chills and general illness can be a sign of infection. Issues like joint infection, bone infection (osteomyelitis), and abscesses can all present with shoulder pain and systemic symptoms. See a physician promptly if your shoulder hurts and you feel sick. You may need antibiotics or surgery.

Injury or Fall on the Shoulder

Acute shoulder pain after sustaining an injury like falling directly onto your shoulder needs immediate assessment. It could represent a possible fracture, dislocation, cartilage tear or other problem. Don’t wait to see if it feels better – get it examined. Trying to move or bear weight on an injured shoulder can make the problem worse.

Persistent Night Pain

Inflammation and tendonitis can cause shoulder pain at night, but if the night pain persists for many nights, it could signify a larger issue. Ongoing shoulder pain that interferes with sleep warrants seeing a doctor for evaluation.

Weakness in Arm and Hand

You may expect some weakness moving your shoulder and arm if you injure it. However, if the shoulder pain also causes weakness, numbness or loss of fine motor control in your arm and hand, it could indicate nerve damage or nerve impingement. Seek prompt medical care for these neurological symptoms.

No Improvement

If you’ve given your shoulder a couple weeks of rest and conservative care but are still experiencing intense pain and dysfunction, it’s time to get it checked out. Persistent shoulder pain likely indicates an underlying condition that needs treatment. Don’t delay seeking medical advice.

Trust your instincts. If your shoulder hurts and just doesn’t feel right, get it examined. Pay attention to any red flag symptoms and don’t assume it will resolve on its own. Getting a proper diagnosis and treatment can help prevent complications and long-term shoulder dysfunction. Contact your doctor for prompt evaluation of any persistent, severe, or worsening shoulder pain.