How to Self-Diagnose Your Shoulder Pain

Considering the shoulder’s range of motion and its overall complexity, it’s no wonder that this is one of the most vulnerable joints in the human body. Besides simply keeping our arms attached to our bodies, the shoulders do a lot of work, such as helping us reach, hold, lift, carry, press and pull, so it’s really important to keep them healthy.

Commonly thought of as a single joint, the shoulder is actually made up of two separate joints – the glenohumeral and acromioclavicular joints, which are held together by extensive ligament and muscle attachments and work together to enable the arm to perform a wide variety of complex movements. Since the glenohumeral joint has such a wide range of motion, the supporting tendons and ligaments are very prone to injury, but the two clavicular joints can also be the root cause of shoulder ailments.

Unfortunately, certain types of force can easily weaken the shoulder and shoulder pain is extremely common – it’s been estimated that up to 70% of the general population will be affected by shoulder pain over the course of their lifetimes. The shoulder is susceptible to two types of injury: overuse injury, common in athletes and workers who practice repetitive movements involving the shoulders, and traumatic injury, caused by a fall or blow to the shoulder. If left untreated, shoulder pain can easily turn into a chronic problem that effects daily activities and training efforts.

The best way to prevent shoulder pain is to perform exercises which strengthen the shoulder complex and the entire upper body, which will help you achieve the strength and flexibility required for long-term optimal functioning of the shoulder joint during repetitive movements and under heavy loads.

Frequent shoulder pain and reduced mobility are clear indicators that something is wrong and the cause of pain needs to be addressed as soon as possible. There are multiple movements that occur at the shoulders, so it can be a real challenge to determine specific injury issues. But there are a few movement tests that can give you a clue where the problem lies.

To easily assess the health of your shoulders without having to visit a doctor, we offer you a collection of simple hands-on tests that can be performed with a partner and will help you figure out the cause of your shoulder pain.

#1. Impingement

The typical symptoms of impingement syndrome include difficulty reaching up behind the back and pain or weakness when raising the arm above the head.

To test whether you have impingement, sit on a chair and have your partner raise the arm of your sore shoulder to the front and overhead as far as possible, supporting the shoulder blade with one hand. As your arm is raised overhead and gets pushed to its limit, the space where your rotator cuff tendons and shoulder sub-acromial space (shoulder bursa) reside becomes smaller, so if you feel pain in your shoulder while performing this motion, it’s most likely caused by impingement of the tendons or the shoulder bursa in that area of your shoulder.


Shoulder Impingement

#2. Biceps Tendonitis

Biceps tendonitis is inflammation of the tendon around the long head of the biceps muscle and is commonly experienced as a sudden and sharp pain accompanied by a popping sensation when you reach overhead. The retracted muscle belly bulges over the anterior upper arm, which is commonly referred to as the “Popeye” deformity. Biceps tendonitis is commonly accompanied by rotator cuff tears or SLAP (super labrum anterior to posterior) lesions.

Here’s how to find out if you have it: while seated, raise your arm of your painful shoulder forward and hold it straight in front of you. Turn your palm up and have your partner gently push your arm down while you attempt to resist. If you feel pain in the front of your shoulder while resisting the push, biceps tendonitis is the most probable cause of your shoulder pain.

#3. Labrum Tear

The symptoms of a shoulder labral tear are pain over the top of your shoulder, shoulder weakness and a sensation that your shoulder joint is unstable and will pop out of place, especially when your shoulder is in extreme external rotation.

This test has two parts: the apprehension and relocation tests. To perform the apprehension test, lie on your back on a flat, elevated surface like a bench or a table. Move your arm out to the side until it becomes perpendicular to the torso, then flex your elbow to form a 90-degree angle. Your partner should now slowly rotate your arm so that your hand moves toward your ear, pushing it as far as possible, while you focus on maintaining the 90-degree elbow flexion.

If this is painful, the test is considered positive for a labrum tear. For the relocation test, have your partner gently press on the front of your shoulder to relocate the joint. Ironically, if the shoulder feels stable, that’s an indicator of a torn labrum.