Shoulder Pain with Uncertain Cause 

Shoulder pain can have many causes. Pain often comes from the structures that surround the shoulder joint. These are the joint capsule, ligaments, tendons, muscles, and bursa. Pain can also come from cartilage in the joint. Cartilage can become worn out or injured. It’s important to know what’s causing your pain so the healthcare provider can use the correct treatment. But sometimes it’s difficult to find the exact cause of shoulder pain. You may need to see a specialist (orthopedist). You may also need special tests such as a CT scan or MRI. The provider may need to use special tools to look inside the joint (arthroscopy).

Shoulder pain can be treated with a sling or a device that keeps your shoulder from moving. You can take an anti-inflammatory medicine such as ibuprofen to ease pain. You may need to do special shoulder exercises. Follow up with a specialist if the pain is severe or doesn’t go away after a few weeks.

Home care

Follow these tips when caring for yourself at home:

  • If a sling was given to you, leave it in place for the time advised by your healthcare provider. If you aren’t sure how long to wear it, ask for advice. If the sling becomes loose, adjust it so that your forearm is level with the ground. Your shoulder should feel well supported.

  • Put an ice pack on the injured area for 20 minutes every 1 to 2 hours the first day. You can make your own ice pack by putting ice cubes in a plastic bag. Wrap the bag in a thin towel. Continue with ice packs 3 to 4 times a day for the next 2 days. Then use the pack as needed to ease pain and swelling.

  • You may use acetaminophen or ibuprofen to control pain, unless another pain medicine was prescribed. If you have chronic liver or kidney disease, talk with your healthcare provider before using these medicines. Also talk with your provider if you’ve ever had a stomach ulcer or digestive bleeding.

  • Shoulder pain may seem worse at night, when there is less to distract you from the pain. If you sleep on your side, try to keep weight off your painful shoulder. Propping pillows behind you may stop you from rolling over onto that shoulder during sleep. 

  • Shoulder and elbow joints can become stiff if left in a sling for too long. You should start range of motion exercises about 7 to 10 days after the injury. Talk with your provider to find out what type of exercises to do and how soon to start.

  • You can take the sling off to shower or bathe.

Follow-up care

Follow up with your healthcare provider if you don’t start to get better in the next 5 days.

When to seek medical advice

Call your healthcare provider right away if any of these occur:

  • Pain or swelling gets worse or continues for more than a few days

  • Your hand or fingers become cold, blue, numb, or tingly

  • Large amount of bruising on your shoulder or upper arm

  • Trouble moving your hand or fingers

  • Weakness in your hand or fingers

  • Your shoulder becomes stiff

  • It feels like your shoulder is popping out

  • You are less able to do your daily activities

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