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What Does Shoulder Bursitis Feel Like?

Shoulder bursitis is a common and painful condition that affects the bursae in your shoulder. The bursae are small, fluid-filled sacs that provide cushioning between your bones and the tendons and muscles near your joints. When bursitis develops, the bursae become inflamed and painful. This can severely impact your shoulder mobility and comfort. So what exactly does shoulder bursitis feel like when it strikes? Here is an overview of the most common symptoms:

Pain and Tenderness

One of the hallmark symptoms of shoulder bursitis is pain and tenderness concentrated in the point of your shoulder. This is because the bursae rest right over the bony tip of your shoulder joint. When these sacs become irritated, every movement that puts pressure on this spot will cause pain. Oftentimes, the pain is described as achy, sharp, or stabbing in nature. You may also feel tenderness and pain when you press on the bursae. The severity can range from mild to severe depending on the level of inflammation.

Limited Mobility

Inflamed and irritated bursae can greatly restrict shoulder mobility. Attempting to lift your arm overhead, reach behind your back, or rotate your shoulder will lead to pain and stiffness. The affected joint will have a reduced range of motion in all directions. Simple tasks like brushing your hair or reaching for objects on shelves can become difficult. The location of your bursitis will determine the types of movements that are most impaired. For example, bursitis on the top of your shoulder limits overhead motion more.


The inflammation does more than cause pain – it also makes the shoulder joint stiff. You may notice stiffness, especially first thing in the morning or after long periods of inactivity. It can take a while for the joint to limber up. The stiffness may go hand-in-hand with the painful, limited mobility. Even a task as simple as rolling over in bed can be hindered by a stiff, inflamed shoulder.


The shoulder muscles surrounding the inflamed bursae often weaken in response to the condition. This occurs for several reasons. First, pain limits your ability to use your arm and shoulder normally. Second, the inflammation can irritate the rotator cuff and deltoid muscles near the bursae. This causes reflexive inhibition – where the nervous system limits activation of the muscles as a protective mechanism. Together, these factors lead to noticeable weakness. Activities requiring shoulder strength like lifting, pushing, pulling and overhead reaches become fatiguing or challenging.


Depending on the severity, you may notice visible swelling around the inflamed bursae. This is caused by the excess fluid accumulating inside the irritated bursae. Mild cases may only have minor swelling that you can feel. But severe cases can cause a visibly swollen and enlarged bump at the point of your shoulder. The swelling increases with activities that aggravate the inflammation. Applying ice can help reduce visible swelling.


In some cases, the skin overlying the inflamed bursae takes on a reddish hue. This occurs as increased blood flow is delivered to the irritated area. Like swelling, the redness often intensifies after activity or exercise. It diminishes when the shoulder is at rest. Visible redness indicates acute inflammation that may require prompt medical treatment.

Popping or Cracking

As you move your shoulder joint, you may notice cracking, popping or snapping sensations. This can occur as the swollen bursae and other irritated tissues get caught or rub together. Inflamed tendons may also cause these popping noises. The sounds often happen when you rotate your arm or reach overhead. They arise from the disturbed mechanics within the joint.

Difficulty Sleeping

Lying on your side or rolling onto your shoulder while sleeping can be difficult with bursitis. The excess pressure on the inflamed area causes pain that jolts you awake. You may also have trouble finding a comfortable sleeping position that doesn’t aggravate your shoulder. Severe cases can lead to insomnia and fatigue.

In summary, shoulder bursitis causes localized pain and tenderness, limited mobility, stiffness, swelling, redness, and weakness around the inflamed joint. Simple tasks become difficult and the pain can interfere with sleep. Seeking prompt treatment can help manage these symptoms and reduce the inflammation over time. Let your doctor know right away if your shoulder pain is not improving or excessively limits your normal motion. An accurate diagnosis and treatment plan are key to regaining strength and mobility after experiencing shoulder bursitis.