What Causes Restricted Shoulder Movement?

Our shoulders allow for extensive mobility in all directions, giving us great range of motion for daily life. However, many conditions can impede shoulder movement and flexibility. Restricted shoulder mobility not only hampers activity, but it can lead to chronic pain and accelerated joint degeneration. Understanding the common causes is the first step toward proper treatment and restoring function.

Anatomy of the Shoulder Joint

The shoulder is known as a ball-and-socket joint. The rounded head of the upper arm bone fits into the shallow socket of the shoulder blade. This allows movement in all planes of motion. Various soft tissues support and control shoulder function:

  • Rotator cuff – Stabilizes the shoulder joint and enables rotation
  • Bursa sacs – Cushion areas between bones and tendons
  • Labrum – Ring of cartilage around the socket adds stability
  • Ligaments – Connect bones together
  • Tendons – Attach muscles to bones

Damage or abnormalities in any of these structures can disrupt normal kinematics and lead to impaired mobility.

Common Causes of Restricted Shoulder Motion

There are several potential causes for stiffness and loss of mobility in the shoulder:


  • Rotator cuff tears – Overuse or trauma can rip the tendons.
  • Dislocations – Forcefully dislocating the shoulder damages tissues.
  • Fractures – Breaks in the bones limit mobility during healing.
  • Sprains & strains – Over-stretching ligaments or muscles.
  • Labral tears – Injury to the labrum cartilage.


  • Osteoarthritis – Gradual wearing down of cartilage.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis – Autoimmune joint inflammation.
  • Post-traumatic arthritis – Arthritis resulting from past injuries.

Adhesive Capsulitis

  • Frozen shoulder – The connective capsule thickens and contracts, restricting motion.


  • Inflammation of bursa sacs surrounding the joint.


  • Swelling of shoulder tendons like the rotator cuff or biceps tendon.

Calcific Tendinitis

  • Calcium deposits in tendons cause pain and stiffness.

Symptoms of Limited Shoulder Mobility

Restricted shoulder movement manifests in several ways:

  • Pain during shoulder movements
  • Stiffness, tightness, or loss of range of motion
  • Difficulty lifting arm overhead, behind back, or out to side
  • Dull, achy discomfort around the shoulder and upper arm
  • Popping, cracking, or grinding noises during use
  • Arm weakness
  • Swelling, bruising, or deformity after injury
  • Joint instability or dislocations

Any unexplained changes in shoulder function warrant medical evaluation, especially if accompanied by trauma. Sudden restrictions could signal a tear or acute injury needing prompt treatment.

Seeking a Diagnosis

To determine the exact cause of impaired shoulder mobility, the physician will:

  • Review medical history and symptoms
  • Conduct a physical exam assessing range of motion and pain
  • Palpate the joint to check for injury and laxity
  • Order imaging tests – X-rays, MRI, CT scan, ultrasound
  • Assess activity patterns and ergonomics

Diagnostic arthroscopy may also be used to view inside the joint directly. Correctly identifying the underlying pathology is essential for effective treatment.

Treatment Options for Regaining Mobility

Depending on the diagnosis, treatment options include:

  • Rest and modified activity to avoid further damage
  • Ice and heat therapy to relieve inflammation
  • Pain relievers and anti-inflammatory medication
  • Gentle stretching and exercise to improve flexibility
  • Physical therapy to strengthen muscles and restore function
  • Steroid injections to decrease inflammation
  • Surgery to repair injuries like torn ligaments, labrum, or rotator cuff
  • Joint replacement for severe arthritis

Following all physician instructions and completing rehabilitation are vital for regaining pain-free shoulder mobility. While the process can be lengthy depending on severity, early treatment and diligent self-care provide the best outcome.

If shoulder stiffness and restricted movement are impacting your daily activities, promptly consult your doctor. An accurate diagnosis coupled with the appropriate therapies can help restore strength, comfort and mobility so you can move freely again.