Osteoarthritis of the Shoulder

What is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis (say: oss-tee-oh-arth-rye-tis) is a joint disease that causes the cushion layer between your bones (called cartilage) to wear away. It is also called degenerative joint disease.

Osteoarthritis can affect any joint in your body, and it is the most common type of arthritis. Shoulder osteoarthritis affects the joints of the shoulder.

What are the symptoms of shoulder osteoarthritis?

Symptoms may include:
  • Pain while moving the shoulder or after physical activity, or pain that worsens with changes in the weather
  • Tenderness when pressure is applied on the shoulder
  • Loss of flexibility and difficulty doing routine activities, such as combing your hair, or reaching up to a shelf
  • Stiffness, especially after periods of inactivity (such as sleeping)
  • A clicking or cricking noise when moving the shoulder

Tips to Help You Feel Better

  • Limit vigorous activities, such as heavy lifting.
  • Don’t wait for your pain to get worse before treating it.
  • Ice your shoulder for 20 to 30 minutes, several times a day.
  • Use over-the-counter pain creams and pain medicine, as recommended by your doctor.

How can my doctor tell if I have osteoarthritis?

Your doctor will ask you questions about your pain. He or she will probably ask you if your shoulder pain gets worse with activity and better with rest. Your doctor will examine you to see if you have trouble moving your arm. He or she will also press on your shoulder joint to check for tenderness. Your doctor may also order an X-ray of your shoulder to see what is causing the pain. Blood tests can help rule out other forms of arthritis.

How is osteoarthritis treated?

Your doctor will recommend therapies to help relieve your pain. Your doctor may tell you to:
  • Rest your shoulder or avoid activities that make your pain worse.
  • Put ice on your shoulder for 20 to 30 minutes a few times a day to reduce inflammation and ease the pain.
  • Take an over-the-counter medicine, such as acetaminophen (one brand: Tylenol) or ibuprofen (one brand: Motrin).
  • Do physical therapy or certain exercises to help strengthen the muscles around the joint.
If your pain is severe, your doctor may give you a shot of a corticosteroid (a drug that helps relieve pain and inflammation) in your shoulder or prescribe a stronger pain medicine.

If none of these treatments work, you may need surgery. The kind of surgery you have will depend on your age and how severe your osteoarthritis is.

More Information

For more information talk to your doctor.


Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff.

Shoulder Osteoarthritis: Diagnosis and Management by Peter J. Millett, MD, Reuben Gobezie, MD, and Robert E. Boykin, MD (American Family Physician September 1, 2008, http://www.aafp.org/afp/20080901/605.html?aafpvlogin=8125322&aafpvpw=&URL_success=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.aafp.org%2Fafp%2F20080901%2F605.html)

Created: 10/09