Referred Shoulder Pain

by PhysioAdvisor Staff

Injuries > Shoulder > Referred Shoulder Pain

What is referred shoulder pain?

Referred shoulder pain is a term given to pain that is felt in the shoulder although it originates from another region of the body. This is commonly seen in clinical practice.

There are several structures in the body that, when injured, may cause the patient to experience pain in the shoulder. This can occur even though there may be nothing wrong with the shoulder itself.


Causes of referred shoulder pain

The neck and upper back are the most common areas of the body that, when injured, may cause referred pain to the shoulder (figure 1). In addition, increased neural tension (tight nerves) may also contribute to the development of symptoms.

Referred Shoulder Pain

Figure 1 – Areas of the body that may cause referred shoulder pain

Some of the more common conditions which may cause these symptoms include:


Signs and symptoms of referred shoulder pain

Patients with shoulder pain that is referred from another source may or may not experience symptoms from the originating source. Patients typically experience a dull ache in the shoulder that is poorly localized and may vary in severity or location. They may also experience pain or stiffness in other locations in the body such as the neck, upper back, shoulder, arm or forearm. Occasionally pain may also be felt in the wrist or hand. These symptoms are usually experienced on the same side of the body as the shoulder pain, although sometimes, the opposite side or both sides may be affected. Occasionally patients may also experience pins and needles or numbness in the affected arm. This most commonly affects the hand and can sometimes affect the other arm or both arms.

Patients with referred shoulder pain normally experience restricted movement and abnormalities on assessment (such as tenderness on palpation) in the specific region of the body causing the pain. Local assessment of the shoulder may demonstrate no significant abnormalities although patients may experience tenderness on firmly touching the shoulder region. In long standing cases of shoulder pain that is referred form another source, patients may develop muscle tightness in the muscles of the shoulder.


Diagnosis of referred shoulder pain

A thorough subjective and objective examination from a physiotherapist is usually sufficient to diagnose referred pain to the shoulder and the underlying cause of symptoms. Further investigations such as X-rays, MRI or CT scans are often required to assist with diagnosis.


Treatment for referred shoulder pain

Treatment for patients with shoulder pain that is referred from another source varies greatly depending on the cause. Accurate diagnosis from a physiotherapist or doctor is therefore required to determine the most appropriate treatment. Treatment of the underlying cause of symptoms should result in improvement in the shoulder pain.


Physiotherapy Products

To purchase physiotherapy products to assist with rehabilitation such as:

  1. Ice or Heat Packs
  2. Postural Supports & Braces
  3. Resistance Band
  4. TENS Machines (for pain relief)
  5. Therapeutic Pillows

Click on one of the above links or visit the PhysioAdvisor Shop.


Find a Physio

Find a physiotherapist in your local area who can assess and treat referred shoulder pain.


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