Shoulder Joint Pain Versus Shoulder Muscle Pain

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If you research the phrase “causes of shoulder pain,” you’ll likely find an overwhelming amount of resources. But how do you know whether your joints, tendons or muscles cause the pain in your shoulder? Knowing which one is causing you discomfort will help you know how to best alleviate the problem.

causes of shoulder pain

First, it’s helpful to understand the anatomy of the shoulder and how it functions. You can think of the shoulder as a ball-in-socket joint, with three connecting bones: the humerus or longer arm bone, the scapula or shoulder blade, and the clavicle or collarbone. These three bones have a cartilage barrier and form two connecting joints.

shoulder pain

The three bones are connected to the surrounding muscles through tendons. The rotator cuff is comprised of four tendons and is what allows the arm to revolve in a 360-degree range of motion.

Thus, some of the most common causes of shoulder pain are inflamed tendons (tendonitis), inflamed joints (arthritis), or inflamed/strained muscles. How do you tell the difference? Below are the major differences between joint pain and muscle or tendon pain in the shoulders.

Joint Pain

A form of arthritis usually causes joint pain in the shoulders. Two common types of arthritis in the shoulder are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Osteoarthritis is considered the well-known, traditional form of arthritis. This type of arthritis is the result of the constant wearing down of your joints, so the older you are, the more likely you are to suffer from osteoarthritis — especially those over age 50.

Rheumatoid arthritis, however, is an autoimmune disorder that typically causes pain in both shoulders at once. Common symptoms include swollen, tender or stiff joints, rheumatoid nodules (bumps under the skin near the shoulders), and fatigue. The swelling can erode the surrounding bones, which can lead to more severe injuries later on.

Other types of arthritis that affect the shoulders include post-traumatic arthritis, avascular necrosis, and rotator cuff tear arthropathy, which can be caused by a torn rotator cuff. 

Muscle & Tendon Pain

Muscle pain can occur in the shoulders for multiple reasons. The straining, or tearing, of shoulder muscles is often the result excessive exercise or postural fatigue. If your shoulder muscles feel tight, weak, and unable to be rotated to their usual capacity, they could be strained. It’s important to avoid exercises that have the possibility of irritating the shoulders, especially ones involving heavy weight lifting; if you’re unsure if your current workout routine could be harming your shoulders, consider the help of a personal trainer.

Tendonitis or tendon tears are the most common culprits of tendon pain in the shoulder. Similarly to muscle pain, they are often the result of overexertion during exercise. Tearing your rotator cuff can bring injuries to your shoulder muscles, tendons, and joints, as they are all connected.

Any workout with internal rotation, such as the upright barbell row, is likely to cause damage to your shoulder muscles and tendons because it repeatedly pinches one of the chief tendons in the shoulder.

It may be difficult to pinpoint exactly what inside your shoulder is hurting, since all parts of the shoulder form an intertwined, affixed system. However, knowing the root of your shoulder pain is vital, and a simple blog post isn’t enough space to give you the specific answers you need. It’s recommended to speak with a shoulder expert in order to ensure the most accurate diagnosis and to prevent a more serious shoulder injury.