Overcoming shoulder pain

Here is what may be causing your shoulder pain — and what you can do about it.

By , Executive Editor, Harvard Men's Health Watch

close-up photo of a man viewed from behind holding his hand on his sore shoulder

The shoulder joint is the body's most flexible and complex joint. Three bones, nearly a dozen different muscles, and many ligaments and tendons work together to move the arm in just about any direction. "Most people will experience shoulder pain at some point in their lives," says Patrick Wilson, a certified orthopedic manual therapist at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Rehabilitation Services. "The pain can come on gradually or abruptly, ranging from mild to excruciating."

The most common causes of shoulder pain are bursitis, rotator cuff problems, frozen shoulder, and osteoarthritis. They can occur for various reasons, such as overuse, injury, and age-related wear and tear. You should seek medical care if shoulder pain lasts longer than a week, suddenly increases, or comes with swelling, redness, or warmth. Your doctor may be able to make a likely diagnosis based on your symptoms and a shoulder exam, or you may need imaging such as MRI.

To continue reading this article, you must log in.

Subscribe to Harvard Health Online for immediate access to health news and information from Harvard Medical School.

  • Research health conditions
  • Check your symptoms
  • Prepare for a doctor's visit or test
  • Find the best treatments and procedures for you
  • Explore options for better nutrition and exercise
Learn more about the many benefits and features of joining Harvard Health Online »

I'd like to receive access to Harvard Health Online for only $4.99 a month.

Sign Me Up

Already a member? Login ».

About the Author

photo of Matthew Solan

Matthew Solan, Executive Editor, Harvard Men's Health Watch

Matthew Solan is the executive editor of Harvard Men’s Health Watch. He previously served as executive editor for UCLA Health’s Healthy Years and as a contributor to Duke Medicine’s Health News and Weill Cornell Medical College’s … See Full Bio
View all posts by Matthew Solan

About the Reviewer

photo of Howard E. LeWine, MD

Howard E. LeWine, MD, Chief Medical Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Dr. Howard LeWine is a practicing internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Chief Medical Editor at Harvard Health Publishing, and editor in chief of Harvard Men’s Health Watch. See Full Bio
View all posts by Howard E. LeWine, MD


As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles.

No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

You might also be interested in…

Healing Shoulder Pain: A troubleshooting guide for common shoulder problems

Up to 70% of people will experience shoulder pain at some point in their lives. Shoulder pain can be particularly vexing, because it makes it hard to sleep. But why is the shoulder so troublesome? The answer comes down to the shoulder’s unique structure, the constant demands we place on it throughout the day, and a variety of risk factors. This report will serve as your guide through shoulder repair and recovery and help you communicate more effectively with your doctor as you move through the process.

Read More

Free Healthbeat Signup

Get the latest in health news delivered to your inbox!

Sign Up
Harvard Health Publishing Logo

Thanks for visiting. Don't miss your FREE gift.

The Best Diets for Cognitive Fitness, is yours absolutely FREE when you sign up to receive Health Alerts from Harvard Medical School

Sign up to get tips for living a healthy lifestyle, with ways to fight inflammation and improve cognitive health, plus the latest advances in preventative medicine, diet and exercise, pain relief, blood pressure and cholesterol management, and more.

Harvard Health Publishing Logo

Health Alerts from Harvard Medical School

Get helpful tips and guidance for everything from fighting inflammation to finding the best diets for weight loss...from exercises to build a stronger core to advice on treating cataracts. PLUS, the latest news on medical advances and breakthroughs from Harvard Medical School experts.

BONUS! Sign up now and
get a FREE copy of the
Best Diets for Cognitive Fitness

Harvard Health Publishing Logo

Stay on top of latest health news from Harvard Medical School.

Plus, get a FREE copy of the Best Diets for Cognitive Fitness.