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Shoulder Osteoarthritis

What is osteoarthritis of the shoulder?

Osteoarthritis (OA) is a common inflammatory condition that affects the joints, which can cause pain, stiffness, and difficulty with everyday tasks.

Your shoulders, like other joints, constantly undergo a normal balance of remodelling and repair which usually goes unnoticed. 

Sometimes if we do more than usual, or there is an injury, this balance may be disturbed causing pain, swelling or heat in the joint. This is known as a flare up and may last for up to 24 weeks. 

What are the symptoms?

People may experience a range of different symptoms from mild to severe, such as:

  • Pain in the shoulder and upper arm
  • Pain towards the neck and further down the arm
  • Pain and stiffness that can be constant or comes and goes
  • Limitation in shoulder movement (such as when you reach up behind your head, or behind your back etc)
  • Pain that may disturb your sleep
  • Stiffness is worse after periods of rest, or first thing in the morning but eases within 30 minutes

What are the causes?

The exact cause of osteoarthritis is unclear.  People often think it is only related to age, however this is not true, there are other factors to consider such as:

  • Gender - It is more common in women than men
  • Previous history of Gout or Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Previous injury for example shoulder dislocation or fracture
  • Previous surgery to the shoulder
  • Age - over 50
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Thyroid problems
  • Smoking

For further information regarding stopping smoking, exercise, mental health and weight management, please click here to visit our "Healthy You" page. 

What can I do to help myself?

OA advice for shoulder

What else can I do?

Increasing general aerobic exercises such as brisk walking, cycling, or swimming have been shown to help. You can also do regular exercise focusing on movement and strengthening the shoulder. We have included some exercises below for you to try:

Osteoarthritis of the shoulder exercises - EASY

Oseoarthritis of the shoulder exercises - MODERATE

Osteoarthritis of the shoulder exercises - ADVANCED

Do I need an x-ray or scan?

In most cases, no. A good history and physical examination of your shoulder alone provides enough information to diagnose your problem. Scans and x-rays are not always useful for diagnosing shoulder pain. While a scan or x-ray may provide information it rarely alters the treatment plan. 

Imaging findings are very poorly linked with pain and often people with no pain have very similar findings on their scans/x-rays to those that do. X-rays and scans can help for a small number of people in certain situations and will be recommended by a healthcare professional if required.

What about a steroid injection?

A steroid injection may be considered to help control the pain in some circumstances. The risks and benefits would be discussed with your Physiotherapist or GP and is not always an appropriate option for all patients.

Symptoms to check

Click the plus sign to see a list of problems that could be a sign you may need to be checked urgently

Get advice from 111 now if:

  • the pain is sudden or very bad
  • you cannot move your arm
  • your arm or shoulder has changed shape or is badly swollen
  • you have pins and needles that do not go away
  • your arm or shoulder is hot or cold to touch
  • the pain is severe and started after an injury or accident, like a fall
  • hurts when you exercise but goes away when your rest
  • you are experiencing chest pain/tightness with your shoulder pain

111 will tell you what to do. They can tell you the right place to get help if you need to see someone.

Go to 111.nhs.uk or call 111.

Immediate medical advice is available by contacting NHS 111

Referral information

If you are struggling with managing your shoulder pain you can self-refer to a physiotherapist for further guidance.