What are the early signs of arthritis in the shoulder?

Shoulder arthritis causes pain in the joint and sounds while using the shoulder joint.
Shoulder arthritis causes pain in the joint and sounds while using the shoulder joint.

The shoulder is a complex joint and has the greatest range of motion out of all the joints. Shoulder arthritis commonly refers to the bigger ball-and-socket joint (glenohumeral joint) out of the two joints. Here, the ball refers to the humeral head and the socket refers to the glenoid cavity of the shoulder blade (scapular bone).

The second joint in the shoulder, the acromioclavicular or AC joint, can also develop arthritis known as AC joint arthritis.

Early signs and symptoms of arthritis in the shoulder include

  • Pain in the shoulder joint (while using the arm or at rest)
    • The pain is worse while lifting heavy objects.
    • The pain can radiate to the arm and down to the elbow and wrist.
  • Sounds of grinding, clicking or crackling (crepitus) with the movement of the shoulder joint

As arthritis in the shoulder progresses, you may experience stiffness due to loss of range of motion in the joint. Simple activities, such as combing the hair or opening the buttons of a shirt, become difficult.

What causes arthritis in the shoulder?

Arthritis in the shoulder is caused when the cartilage inside the shoulder joint experiences wear and tear. This most commonly occurs in people over the age of 50.

In young people, shoulder arthritis mainly results from trauma or injury to the shoulder. This may cause the shoulder to become fractured or dislocated, which can eventually result in arthritis in the absence of proper treatment.

A family history of arthritis in the family can also cause arthritis in the shoulder.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic joint disorder that affects multiple joints in the body. It is an autoimmune condition in which the immune system attacks the body’s own tissues. This condition may also cause arthritis in the shoulder joint in the long term.

How is shoulder arthritis diagnosed?

The doctor performs a physical examination of the shoulder joint and takes your medical history to diagnose shoulder arthritis. Imaging tests help the doctor to confirm the diagnosis and determine the extent of cartilage loss and damage to the shoulder joints. These include

Certain blood tests, such as rheumatoid arthritis tests, help identify if the cause of shoulder arthritis is rheumatoid arthritis or something else.

How is shoulder arthritis treated?

There is no cure for shoulder arthritis once it develops. However, a combination of various treatments can help relieve symptoms such as pain and stiffness.

  • Rest: This involves resting the shoulder joint by modifying the way certain activities are performed. For example, you might have to wear clothing that zips up the entire front instead of clothing that you have to put on over your head.
  • Medications: Taking over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as Ibuprofen or aspirin, can reduce pain and inflammation involved in shoulder arthritis. Before trying any of them, ask your doctor whether they are safe for you.
  • Physical therapy: Physical therapy involves performing exercises that help  improve the flexibility of the shoulder joint and strengthen the muscles around the joint. This often involves performing range-of-motion exercises.
  • Application of heating pad or ice to the shoulder: To relieve pain, you can apply a heating pad or ice to the shoulder for 10 to 20 minutes two to three times a day.
  • Steroid injections: Your doctor may administer corticosteroids injections directly into your shoulder joint at periodic intervals.

If you do not get any symptom relief for shoulder arthritis, your doctor may recommend surgery that repairs the shoulder joint.


What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)? Symptoms, Treatment, Diagnosis See Slideshow

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Medically Reviewed on 12/9/2020
Medscape Medical Reference

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons