What is shoulder tendonitis?

The treatment plan will depend on your symptoms, your age, the severity of the condition, and your general health.
The treatment plan will depend on your symptoms, your age, the severity of the condition, and your general health.

Your shoulder is capable of a wide range of motion, and you use it in almost all daily activities. When you have shoulder pain, it can have a huge impact on your ability to live a normal life. One potential cause of shoulder pain is rotator cuff tendonitis. 

Tendons are strong, flexible bands of tissue that connect your muscles to your bones. They are located throughout your body. Tendons range in size from the smallest one in your inner ear to the large ones in your legs. When these tendons become inflamed and irritated, it's called tendonitis. 

Shoulder tendonitis can be caused by sports injuries, or they can be caused by normal wear and tear that weakens the shoulder tissues over time. People who perform repetitive overhead movements are at the highest risk for developing this problem.

Shoulder tendonitis is an inflammation of one of the tendons in your shoulder. There are four tendons in the rotator cuff. They work together with the other structures in the shoulder to stabilize it and allow you to rotate your shoulder and lift your arm above your head.  You also have biceps tendons that connect the biceps muscle to the shoulder bone.

Shoulder tendonitis is often caused by the tendon being pinched by nearby structures in the shoulder.  Symptoms of shoulder tendonitis may vary but can include:

  • Inability to hold your arm in certain positions
  • Dull, aching shoulder pain that isn't in one specific location
  • Popping sensation or sound in the shoulder
  • Pain that extends into the upper arm or chest
  • Pain in the shoulder that interferes with sleep 

Shoulder tendonitis can be caused by the following: 

  • Sports that require repetitive overhead movements like volleyball or swimming
  • An injury
  • Wear and tear over time 

Anyone can develop shoulder tendonitis but some factors that increase your risk include:

  • Working in a job that requires overhead movements like construction or painting
  • Family history

Diagnosis for shoulder tendonitis

Only a doctor can diagnose you for shoulder tendonitis. Your doctor will listen to your symptoms and perform a physical exam to diagnose your tendonitis. 

You may be asked questions about your pain, such as the location and intensity of it.  Your doctor may also order some other diagnostic imaging studies such as an X-ray, magnetic resonance imagery (MRI), or an ultrasound to confirm a diagnosis. 

Treatments for shoulder tendonitis

Your treatment plan will depend on your symptoms, your age, the severity of the condition, and your general health. Some treatment options include: 

Medications

Home care/other treatments

Your doctor may recommend the following measures:

  • Rest by avoiding activities that cause pain
  • Stretching and strengthening exercises
  • Hot and cold therapy
  • Physical therapy 
  • Ultrasound therapy

Surgery

Most cases of tendonitis of the shoulder will not need surgery. However, if your symptoms are severe and do not improve with other treatments, your doctor may suggest surgery. Rotator cuff surgery can be performed to remove the inflamed bone and tissue. There are two types of rotator cuff surgery:

  • Arthroscopic surgery, which is minimally invasive and good for mild cases of tendonitis
  • Open surgery, which is only done on severe cases and replaces some of the damaged tissue

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Possible complications and side effects of treatment

If shoulder tendonitis is not treated, it can get worse and lead to a torn tendon. There are also possible risks and side effects with the medications and procedures used to treat shoulder tendonitis that can include: 

Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs

Steroid Injections

Surgery
  • Infection
  • Scarring
  • Nerve or blood vessel injury
  • Tendon movement
  • Stiffness

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Medically Reviewed on 3/2/2021
References
Arkansas Surgical Hospital: "Rotator Cuff Tendinitis: Symptoms and Surgical Repair Options."

Cedars Sinai: "Shoulder Tendonitis."

Harvard Health Publishing: "What to do about rotator cuff tendonitis."

John Hopkins Medicine: "Shoulder Tendonitis."

National Health Service: "NSAIDs."

National Health Service: "Steroid Injections."

NHS: "Steroid Injections."