15 Causes of Right Shoulder and Arm Pain


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Shoulder pain is very common. Because they’re the most mobile joints in your body, your shoulders are very prone to the effects of injuries and degenerative conditions.

It’s possible that shoulder pain can radiate down into your arm. Conversely, a condition affecting your upper arm may be felt around your shoulder.

You may be wondering what are the most common causes of right shoulder and arm pain.

Generally speaking, problems with the rotator cuff are the most common cause of this type of pain. Many of these issues are also the cause of left shoulder pain. However, some causes of left shoulder pain may be related to organs that cause referred radiating pain.

Keep reading to learn more about rotator cuff conditions as well as other potential causes of right shoulder and arm pain.

Causes

These are 15 possible causes of pain that occurs in your right shoulder and arm:

1. Rotator cuff disease

The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that keep your upper arm bone (humerus) in the shoulder socket. Tissues of the rotator cuff can become diseased due to overuse or injury, for example, and can lead to:

  • Tendinitis, where the tendons of the rotator cuff become irritated and inflamed.
  • Bursitis, in which the bursa, a fluid-filled sac that helps your rotator cuff to move freely, becomes inflamed.
  • Impingement, where a part of your shoulder blade called the acromion rubs against the tissues of the rotator cuff, leading to swelling and pain.

2. Torn rotator cuff

This happens when one or more of the tendons in your rotator cuff tear. Tears can be partial or complete. They may happen due to an injury, but are often due to wear and tear that happens over time.

3. Shoulder dislocation

A shoulder dislocation happens when the top of your humerus pops out of its socket in your shoulder. This occurs often due to sports injuries, car accidents, and falls.

4. Broken collarbone

A broken collarbone happens when there’s a break in your collarbone (clavicle). Your collarbone serves as a connection between your shoulder and breastbone (sternum). Many breaks happen due to falls or car accidents.

5. Upper arm fracture

This occurs when there’s a break in your humerus. Breaks typically happen close to the shoulder or along the shaft (middle) of the bone. Like broken collarbones, they often happen due to falls or car accidents.

6. Frozen shoulder

A frozen shoulder is when your shoulder stiffens and becomes painful without a known cause, although inflammation is believed to play a role. The condition often eases gradually on its own.

7. Calcific tendinitis

Calcific tendinitis is a condition where calcium deposits build up in or around your rotator cuff, causing symptoms similar to those of frozen shoulder. The exact cause is unknown.

8. Shoulder sprain

A shoulder sprain happens when ligaments in your shoulder are stretched or torn. This can happen to any of the ligaments of your shoulder. Sprains often occur due to sports injuries, falls, or accidents.

9. Separated shoulder

A separated shoulder happens when there’s an injury to the ligaments that hold your shoulder to the collarbone. This can cause the ligaments to stretch or to completely tear.

10. Shoulder osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is when the tissues of your joints become worn down, often due to normal wear and tear. While less common than knee or hip arthritis, shoulder arthritis can have a significant impact on those that have it.

11. Shoulder rheumatoid arthritis (RA)

RA is a condition in which your immune system attacks your joints. People with RA can experience significantly impaired shoulder function about 1.5 years after the condition’s onset.

12. Cervical radiculopathy

Cervical radiculopathy happens when a nerve in your neck becomes compressed as it moves away from your spinal cord. It can happen due to wear and tear, herniated discs, or bone spurs.

13. Brachial neuritis

Brachial neuritis is when the brachial nerve, which supplies your shoulder and arm, becomes inflamed. Its cause is unknown. About 60 percent of the time brachial neuritis affects your dominant side.

14. Brachial plexus injury

Your brachial plexus is a group of nerves that control movements in your arm and hand. This function can be affected when these nerves are damaged. Common causes are falls and accidents.

15. Thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS)

TOS is actually a group of conditions that happen when the nerves or blood vessels around your collarbone and first rib become compressed. It can be caused by injury and repetitive motions.

What does the pain feel like?

Now that we’ve discussed some of the causes of right shoulder and arm pain, let’s take a closer look at what that pain can feel like.

Pain around the upper arm and shoulder

This happens when the pain is localized predominantly in the area of your shoulder and upper part of your humerus. The conditions that cause this can include:

  • Rotator cuff disease: Initially, pain is often felt at the front of the shoulder.
  • Torn rotator cuff: Tears in the rotator cuff can include pain that begins near the shoulder.
  • Dislocated shoulder: Pain from a shoulder dislocation is most acutely felt near the shoulder.
  • Broken collarbone: The pain from a broken collarbone can be felt close to the shoulder, particularly when you try to move your arm.
  • Frozen shoulder: This type of pain typically comes on gradually and feels dull and deep.
  • Calcific tendinitis: Pain due to calcific tendinitis can be severe and can come on suddenly, often in the morning.
  • Shoulder sprain: You can feel pain from a shoulder sprain not only in your shoulder, but also in the area of your upper arm and collarbone.
  • Separated shoulder: The pain due to a separated shoulder is felt around the shoulder and upper arm.
  • Shoulder osteoarthritis and RA: People with arthritis in their shoulder often feel a deep ache in their shoulder and upper arm.
  • Brachial neuritis: Pain from brachial neuritis is typically severe and most often happens in the area of the shoulder and upper arm.
  • Brachial plexus injury: Pain from a brachial plexus injury can happen around the shoulder and upper arm. It may be long lasting.

Pain between the shoulder and elbow

In some cases, pain can be felt in both the area of the right shoulder and further down towards your right elbow. Some causes are:

  • Rotator cuff disease: Pain can begin to radiate from your shoulder into the side of your upper arm.
  • Torn rotator cuff: Shoulder pain may radiate down your arm to the area of the elbow.
  • Dislocated shoulder: The pain from a dislocated shoulder can radiate down the upper arm.
  • Upper arm fracture: A break in your upper arm can cause pain that’s localized around the area of your shoulder and throughout your upper arm.
  • Frozen shoulder: Pain from a frozen shoulder may also spread into your right bicep.
  • Calcific tendinitis: Similarly to frozen shoulder, pain from calcific tendinitis can spread down into your bicep area.

Pain from the shoulder to the hand

Many causes of right shoulder and arm pain are localized in the area of the shoulder and upper arm. But some can cause pain that can be felt all the way down to your hand. These include:

  • Cervical radiculopathy: This condition can cause sharp pain that can move from the area of your neck and shoulder all the way down your arm.
  • Thoracic outlet syndrome: Pain from TOS can be present from your shoulder down to your hand and fingers.
  • Brachial plexus injuries: As discussed earlier, this type of injury could affect your arm and hand.

Pain with numbness

Pain that occurs with numbness is often associated with conditions affecting the nerves in your shoulder and arm. The conditions that may cause this type of pain are:

  • Shoulder dislocation: The injury that dislocates your shoulder may cause some nerves to stretch, leading to feelings of numbness.
  • Upper arm fracture: An upper arm fracture can potentially lead to nerve damage, causing numbness.
  • Cervical radiculopathy: This sensation is often described as “pins and needles,” and it’s typically felt in your hand and fingers.
  • Brachial neuritis: Nerve inflammation due to brachial neuritis is often associated with numbness in the shoulder and arm.
  • Brachial plexus injury: These injuries can lead to numbness and potentially paralysis in the shoulder and arm.
  • Thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS): TOS can cause numbness and tingling in the arm, hand, or fingers.

Burning pain

There are several conditions in which pain may have a burning sensation to it. As with feelings of numbness, burning pain is often felt when nerves are involved. The conditions that can cause this type of pain are:

  • cervical radiculopathy
  • brachial neuritis
  • brachial plexus injuries
  • thoracic outlet syndrome

Symptoms

In addition to pain, you may also experience some of the following symptoms in or around your right shoulder and arm:

  • pain that happens when:
    • moving your right shoulder or arm, such as when raising, dropping, or rotating your right arm
    • lying down on your right side
    • reaching for or lifting objects with your right arm
  • swelling
  • stiffness
  • bruising
  • tenderness
  • loss of range of motion
  • difficulty carrying out your daily activities, such as dressing, bathing, and cooking
  • a feeling of weakness in the right shoulder, arm, or both
  • a tingling or “pins and needles” sensation in your right hand or fingers
  • a crackling or grinding sensation in your right shoulder when you move your right arm
  • a visible deformity

Right shoulder and arm pain, and heart attack

You may think that heart attack pain may only radiate to your left shoulder and arm. However, according to the American Heart Association, heart attack pain can be felt in the shoulders and one or both arms.

If you or someone else is experiencing right shoulder and arm pain that occurs with any of the symptoms below, call 911.

  • chest pain or pressure that goes on for more than a few minutes
  • pain in the jaw, neck, or back
  • shortness of breath
  • feeling lightheaded
  • breaking out in a cold sweat
  • nausea or vomiting

How to treat it

Let’s look at how right shoulder and arm pain is treated.

Home remedies

If your right shoulder and arm pain is mild to moderate, you can try the following things at home before making an appointment with your doctor.

  • Use the R.I.C.E. method: R.I.C.E. can be used shortly after an injury to ease symptoms and promote recovery. It includes:

    • Rest: Stop doing any activities that cause further pain or irritation.
    • Ice: Apply an icepack or cool compress to the affected area for 15 to 20 minutes several times a day.
    • Compression: Wrap or bandage the affected area to help alleviate swelling.
    • Elevation: Try to elevate your right shoulder and arm about the level of your heart.
  • Take over-the-counter (OTC) medications: There are several types of OTC medications that can help ease symptoms like pain and swelling. Some examples include acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil).
  • Try some gentle stretches: Regular, gentle stretching can help improve flexibility and range of motion. We’ll talk about some basic exercises that you can try out in the next section.
  • Maintain good posture: Poor posture can place further stress on the tissues of your shoulder and arm.

If you have to go to the doctor

If you talk with your doctor about right shoulder and arm pain, they may recommend the following, depending on the severity of your condition.

  • Immobilization: In some cases, limiting the movement of your shoulder or arm may help it heal. This is often achieved using a sling, brace, or cast. Your doctor will let you know when it can be removed.
  • Corticosteroid injections: This is a type of medication that your doctor can inject into the affected area to help reduce inflammation.
  • Prescription medications: Prescription pain medications may be given for severe pain. Oral corticosteroids can help ease inflammation. If you have RA, your doctor will likely prescribe a disease-modifying drug.
  • Physical therapy: Your doctor may give you a list of exercises to do that can help you regain strength, flexibility, and range of motion. In some cases, they may recommend that you work with a physical therapist.
  • Surgery: Surgery may be recommended when other treatments haven’t been effective or when damage is severe. The specific procedure that’s used can depend on what’s causing your condition.

Exercises

Exercise can help reduce pain and improve your flexibility. In fact, a 2020 review of 16 studies found that exercise therapy can be just as effective at easing persistent shoulder pain as corticosteroid injections or decompression surgery.

Below are three exercises that you can try out to help ease or prevent pain in your right shoulder or arm. You can do these stretches either standing up or sitting down.

When doing any exercise or stretch, remember to always use good posture and never push yourself further than you can go. If you have any questions or concerns about an exercise, don’t hesitate to talk with your doctor first.

Crossover arm stretch

You should feel this stretch in the back of your right shoulder. To do it:

  1. Gently pull your right arm across your chest as far as you can.
  2. Use your left hand to hold the upper part of your right arm.
  3. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds.
  4. Allow your right shoulder to relax for 30 seconds.
  5. Repeat another three times.

Triceps stretch

This stretch is felt in your upper arm (triceps) and shoulder. Follow the steps below:

  1. Place your right hand onto your right shoulder.
  2. Grip your right elbow with your left hand.
  3. Gently lift your right elbow towards the ceiling until you feel the stretch.
  4. Hold the stretch for 10 to 30 seconds.
  5. Release the stretch, resting for up to 30 seconds.
  6. Repeat another one to three times.

Chest stretch

When you do this exercise, you can feel the stretch in your chest, shoulders, and upper arm (biceps). Here’s how to do it:

  1. Gently clasp your hands behind your back, making sure that your palms face toward you.
  2. Carefully begin to lift your clasped hands toward the ceiling until you begin to feel the stretch.
  3. Hold this position for 10 to 30 seconds.
  4. Release the stretch, slowly lowering your hands.
  5. Rest for up to 30 seconds.
  6. Repeat another one to three times.

When to talk with your doctor

Make an appointment with your doctor if you have right shoulder and arm pain that:

  • doesn’t get better or gets worse with at-home care
  • reduces your range of motion
  • is associated with symptoms like increasing redness or swelling
  • occurs with numbness, weakness, or a “pins and needles” sensation

Seek emergency care if you have an injury to your right shoulder or arm that:

  • is associated with any type of irregularity, including those felt under the skin or bones protruding from the skin
  • causes severe pain, swelling, or bleeding
  • happens with an audible snapping or popping sound

The bottom line

Many conditions can lead to pain in your right shoulder and arm. This pain can affect different locations and may sometimes happen with numbness.

The most common cause of right shoulder and arm pain is an issue with your rotator cuff, such as tendinitis or bursitis. Other potential causes include fractures, arthritis, and cervical radiculopathy.

If you have mild to moderate pain, you can try using home remedies such as R.I.C.E., stretches, and OTC medications to ease your symptoms. Talk with your doctor if home care isn’t effective or pain happens with numbness or increasing swelling.


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