Shoulder problems

Shoulder problems can cause a range of symptoms including:

  • pain
  • stiffness
  • weakness

In many cases, new pain or a flare-up of long-standing shoulder problems should begin to settle within 6 weeks without the need to see a healthcare professional.

Urgent advice: Phone 111 if:

  • there's been new, significant trauma within the last 7 days, for example a fall from height or direct blow to the shoulder
  • your shoulder is misshapen following a new injury
  • you can't move your shoulder at all

Non-urgent advice: Contact your GP, or phone 111 if your GP practice, is closed if:

  • you have shoulder pain and have ever been diagnosed with – cancer or a joint condition like rheumatoid arthritis

Shoulder pain self-help guide

Complete this guide to assess your symptoms and find out if you should visit your GP, pharmacist or treat your condition at home.

Self-help guide: Shoulder pain

What causes shoulder problems?

Shoulder problems are common and are often caused by simple things like:

  • lifting something awkwardly
  • taking part in sport
  • a trip or fall

As you get older, normal age-related changes can cause your shoulder problem to flare-up now and again, often for no reason.

Can shoulder pain cause problems elsewhere?

You may feel pains around your shoulder and neck, and into your arm.

Occasionally, problems felt in your shoulder can be due to a neck problem. This can happen even when you don't feel pain in your neck. People with this sort of problem often describe the pain as pins and needles, sharp, hot or burning pain.

If you have any of these symptoms it would be helpful to read about neck problems.

Self-help

There are a number of things you can do to help your shoulder problem.

How to get moving

Within the first 24 to 48 hours after your shoulder problem has started you should try to:

  • reduce your activities but move as much as your symptoms allow
  • put your arm in a supported position if it's comfortable, when resting
  • move your shoulder gently for 10 to 20 seconds every hour when you're awake

After 48 hours:

  • try to use your shoulder more - exercise really helps your shoulder and can relieve pain
  • do whatever you normally would and stay at, or return to work - this is important and is the best way to get better

It's beneficial to do specific exercises that can help in your recovery. They may be challenging at the beginning so just do what you can and try to build it up over time.

Exercises to help with shoulder problems

Benefits of keeping active

Keeping active is an essential part of your treatment and recovery and is the single best thing you can do for your health.

Being physically active can:

  • maintain your current levels of fitness – even if you have to modify what you normally do, any activity is better than none
  • keep your other muscles and joints strong and flexible
  • prevent a recurrence of the problem
  • help you aim for a healthy body weight

Avoid sports or heavy lifting until you have less discomfort and good movement. Remember to warm up fully before you start sporting activities.

Pain treatments

The following can help to reduce your shoulder pain:

  • pain medication - this can help you move more comfortably, which can help your recovery
  • heat or ice packs

More about taking painkillers.

Treating with ice or heat

Heat or ice can be beneficial in the management of musculoskeletal pain.

Ice is most beneficial if your shoulder problem is related to an injury. You can try heat to help your pain levels if there's no swelling and your symptoms are not related to a recent injury.

Never place ice or heat directly on your skin. Use a barrier, like a towel, to protect your skin from a burn.

How long you use ice as a treatment can vary. However, you should generally apply heat or ice for up to 15 minutes. You should also leave a few hours between treatments.

You should stop treating the area with ice or heat and seek advice from a medical professional if you notice an increase in redness, discolouration or blistering of the skin.

If you have any issues with circulation or sensation, you shouldn't use ice or heat as a treatment for shoulder pain.

Work

It's recommended you stay at or return to work as quickly as possible during your recovery. You don't need to be pain or symptom-free to return to work.

Help and support

Following this advice, you should see gradual improvements over time.

You should see the biggest change in your symptoms within the first couple of weeks. Most problems should have improved within 6 weeks.

If your shoulder problem hasn’t improved within 6 weeks of following this advice, it’s a good idea to talk to a healthcare professional about your symptoms.

Find out how to access MSK services in your area.

Last updated:
28 October 2022