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What causes shoulder and neck pain?

  • The most common cause of shoulder pain and neck pain is injury to the soft tissues, including the muscles, tendons, and ligaments within these structures. This can occur from whiplash or other injury to these areas. Degenerative arthritis of the spine in the neck (cervical spine) can pinch nerves that can cause both neck pain and shoulder pain. Degenerative disc disease in the neck (cervical spondylosis) can cause local neck pain or radiating pain from disc herniation, causing pinching of nerves (cervical radiculopathy). Abnormal conditions involving the spinal cord, heart, lungs, and some abdominal organs also can cause neck and shoulder pain. Here are some examples:
  • Broken collarbone: Falling on your outstretched arm can cause your collarbone to break. This is particularly common when cyclers fall off of their bicycles.
  • Bursitis: A bursa is a sac over the joints to provide a cushion to the joints and muscles. These bursae can become swollen, stiff, and painful after injuries.
  • Heart attacks: Although the problem is the heart, heart attacks can cause shoulder or neck pain, known as "referred" pain.
  • Broken shoulder blade: An injury to the shoulder blade usually is associated with relatively forceful trauma.
  • Rotator cuff injuries: The rotator cuff is a group of tendons that support the shoulder. These tendons can be injured during lifting, when playing sports with a lot of throwing, or after repetitive use over a long time. This can lead to pain with motion of the shoulder due to shoulder impingement syndrome and eventually to a chronic loss of range of motion of the shoulder (frozen shoulder).
  • Shoulder or A-C separation: The collarbone (clavicle) and shoulder blade (scapula) are connected by ligaments. With trauma to the shoulder, these ligaments can be stretched or torn.
  • Whiplash injury: Injury to the ligamentous and muscular structures of the neck and shoulder can be caused by sudden acceleration or deceleration, as in a car accident. This can also cause muscle spasms in the neck and shoulder areas.
  • Tendonitis: The tendons connect the muscles to the bones. With strain, the tendons can become swollen and cause pain. This is also referred to as tendinitis.
  • Gallbladder disease: This can cause a pain referred to the right shoulder.
  • Any cause of inflammation under the diaphragm can also cause referred pain in the shoulder.
Return to Shoulder and Neck Pain

See what others are saying

Comment from: sharon, 65-74 Female (Patient) Published: March 28

I had bladder cancer. They placed a port in for my chemotherapy. After taking out the port I have neck and shoulder pain. I have been seeing a chiropractor and my pain will subside. It then is good for a day or two. I know that this is a nerve problem but I would like to know what to do for the pain until my next visit. I am doing fine with the bladder and it has at the moment a clean bill of health.

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Comment from: susank, 55-64 Female (Patient) Published: September 06

I hope I can help someone with neck, shoulder and arm pain with this story. I was driving on July 1 2011, just driving when all of a sudden I felt like someone punched me hard on the arm. Long story short I could barely turn the steering wheel and went to the ER. My diagnosis was a pinched nerve in my neck. I went to the doctor and he said to get an over the door head harness traction ($22) fill the bag with 9 lbs of water and 3 times a day for 10 mins, use it. Well, I had such pain I took Aleeve twice a day with EXCELLENT relief, but never thought I would ever get out of this pain without it. I could not lay down on either side. I had to sleep on my back and I used ice packs, heat packs and cervical collar. In 2 - 2 1/2 weeks it was 90 percent better. I could lie down on either side and did not need pain meds!

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Comment from: Bwiseman, 35-44 Female (Patient) Published: January 10

In May 2010 I had a tumor removed from my kidney; because the surgery took longer than they expected I ended up with nerve damage in my right upper leg. Recently I was having issues with constant burping, neck pain, not being able to sleep because my back hurt so much. I contacted my doctor, but when they tried to reach me I was in bed trying to get rid of the pain. The pain has moved from my back to shoulder and upper neck. It hurts so badly nothing is working, not even my prescribed medication. I haven't slept in three days because of the pain. I'm not sure why I'm getting the sudden pain besides that I had to walk in the cold to my husband's job.

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