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Ouch! 5 Common Causes of Shoulder Pain

From arthritis to rotator cuff damage, why your shoulders may hurt and possible treatments

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En español l All shoulder pain is not created equal. You can have chronic tenderness, pain from short-term injuries or just plain wear-and-tear aches from age. Dealing with the problem depends largely on the cause of the pain — and its severity. Below are five of the most common causes, along with some treatment options.

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Causes for shoulder pain (Age Fotostock)

Don't let shoulder pain get the best of you. There are treatment options available. — Age Fotostock

1. Osteoarthritis

What it is: Osteoarthritis, the most common type of arthritis, is diagnosed when the cartilage protecting the joints degenerates or wears down. The chronic pain caused by osteoarthritis is often worse at night. The affected joints might creak or click due to the loss of cushioning from the cartilage. In addition to stiffness and weakness, the joint might appear swollen.

Causes: Osteoarthritis is known as wear-and-tear arthritis because it tends to be linked to long-term wear on the joints; traumatic injuries that damage the cartilage can also be linked to this condition. Osteoarthritis most often occurs in people over 50 and can be hereditary.

Treatments: There is no cure for osteoarthritis. A study published in 2000 in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that taking the supplements glucosamine and chondroitin may help ease the symptoms, but more recent research has yielded mixed results.

These supplements "aren't magic bullets and won't rebuild or repair the cartilage, but in moderate cases, they may help with pain," says Edward Laskowski, M.D., a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist and codirector of the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center in Rochester, Minn.

Taking pain relievers (both over-the-counter and prescription), as well as trying physical therapy and specialized exercises and modifying everyday movements to reduce the stress on the shoulder joint, are all recommended before turning to surgery.

These exercises can help strengthen the muscles around the bone and ease the pain. "The muscles provide stability to the joint," Laskowski says. "The stronger the muscles are, the more they can take the pressure off the joints."

Scientists are currently investigating new treatments for osteoarthritis, including the use of blood platelet injections. Some studies have found that these injections can stimulate repair and regeneration of the cartilage, reduce inflammation and decrease pain, though others suggest that the treatment isn't any more effective than a placebo. Whatever option you explore, if you and you doctor find that the disease is progressing, surgery, including joint replacement, might be recommended.

2. Rotator Cuff Damage

What it is: The group of four muscles and tendons that connect the arm to the shoulder is called the rotator cuff. The tendons are susceptible to inflammation and bruising, leading to pain when performing overhead activities, sleeping on the affected side or reaching behind your back. Left untreated, rotator cuff injuries can cause persistent shoulder pain.

Causes: While injuries and repetitive stress are to blame for some rotator cuff damage, the pain is most often caused by normal wear and tear. In fact, at least 50 percent of 50-year-olds have some evidence of rotator cuff degeneration on MRI scans of the shoulder, according to Laskowski.

Treatments: For minor aches, icing the shoulder and taking an over-the-counter pain reliever might be enough to ease the pain. Until the inflammation or bruising heals, Laskowski recommends avoiding lifting, pulling and overhead activities that will exacerbate the pain or cause additional damage to the rotator cuff. If the pain persists, your doctor may recommend a cortisone injection and physical therapy.

Next page: Bursitis and dislocated shoulder. »

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