Shoulder Problems

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Shoulder injuries, arthritis and inflammation in and around joints are common problems in adults, often causing severe pain, discomfort and immobility. Follow this chart to help you talk to your doctor about your shoulder problem.

SYMPTOMS DIAGNOSIS SELF-CARE
Begin Here

1. Did you hit, injure or fall on your upper arm or shoulder recently?


No

Go to Question 7.*

Yes

2. Did you feel your shoulder pop out of place and/or pop back into place?


Yes

Your SHOULDER may be or may have been DISLOCATED.

See your doctor right away.

No

3. Is your upper arm swollen or misshaped?


Yes

Your HUMERUS (upper arm bone) may be FRACTURED.

EMERGENCY
Call your doctor or go to the emergency room right away.

No

4. Is your collarbone tender, or do you have a bump on it?


Yes

Your CLAVICLE (collarbone) may be FRACTURED.

Call your doctor right away. Use a sling to restrict movement of your arm and use an analgesic, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, to relieve pain until you see your doctor.

No

5. Is there tenderness or pain near the shoulder-end of your collarbone, and does lifting your arm with your uninjured arm help the pain?


Yes

Your SHOULDER may be SEPARATED.

Call your doctor right away. Use a sling to restrict movement of your arm and use an analgesic, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, to relieve pain until you see your doctor.

No

6. Does pain come with a twisting motion of your arm, or does a throwing motion cause pain, and does your shoulder seem weak?


Yes

You may have a TORN ROTATOR CUFF or SHOULDER INSTABILITY.

See your doctor.

No

*7. Do you have a fever?


No

Go to Question 10.**

Yes

8. Do you have redness or swelling around your shoulder?


Yes

You may have INFLAMMATION in or around a joint, also called BURSITIS, or a serious INFECTION of the bone, the joint or the skin.

URGENT
See your doctor right away.

No

9. Within the last month have you had a sore throat or a skin infection?


Yes

These symptoms may be from RHEUMATIC FEVER, a reaction to a strep infection.

URGENT
See your doctor right away.


**10. Do you have redness and swelling in more than one joint, including your shoulder?


Yes

You may have RHEUMATOID ARTHRITIS, a disease affecting the immune system, or GOUT, an inflammation of the shoulder joint.

See your doctor. Apply heat to the affected area and take an anti-inflammatory medicine, such as ibuprofen, for pain.

No

11. Do you feel pain when you move your shoulder but there's no swelling or redness?


Yes

You may have BURSITIS or ROTATOR CUFF SYNDROME.

Use an anti-inflammatory medicine, such as ibuprofen, and apply heat to the affected area. If your symptoms do not improve, see your doctor.

No

12. Do you have increasing stiffness and inability to move your shoulder?


Yes

You may have ADHESIVE CAPSULITIS, also called a FROZEN SHOULDER.

See your doctor. This condition is usually treated with special exercises you can do on your own.

No

For more information, please talk to your doctor. If you think the problem is serious, call your doctor right away.

This tool has been reviewed by doctors and is for general educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for medical advice. The information in this tool should not be relied upon to make decisions about your health. Always consult your family doctor with questions about your individual condition(s) and/or circumstances. Source: American Academy of Family Physicians. Family Health & Medical Guide. Dallas: Word Publishing; 1996.

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