The medical definition of arthritis means inflammation of a joint. It can be used to describe any process that results in cartilage loss. When the cartilage in the shoulder joint wears away or is damaged, the resulting arthritis often becomes symptomatic.

Because the smooth cartilage that envelopes the surfaces of the ball (humeral head) and socket (glenoid) is reduced or completely worn away in shoulder arthritis, there is bone-on-bone contact that occurs during certain motions. Over time this results in increasing stiffness, pain, swelling, and limited use of the shoulder. It may also mean that the patient may have difficulty participating in sports, working a physically demanding job, sleeping, and eventually even engaging in daily living activities becomes painful.

Types of Shoulder Arthritis

There are five main types of arthritis, including:

  • Osteoarthritis

A progressive degenerative disease, osteoarthritis is by far the most common type of arthritis that becomes more common with age.

  • Rheumatoid Arthritis

The immune systems of people who have rheumatoid arthritis attacks healthy joints, tissues and organs. There are usually multiple joints involved. This type of arthritis most commonly afflicts people between 15 and 44.

  • Posttraumatic Arthritis

This type of osteoarthritis develops after an injury to the shoulder, such as a fracture or a dislocation, and can occur after shoulder surgery, sometimes many years later.

Causes and Risk Factors

Once thought of as a ‘wear and tear’ phenomenon, the actual cause of osteoarthritis is unknown;. However, several factors that contribute to the condition have been identified, including:

  • Prior shoulder surgery
  • History of trauma
  • Inflammatory conditions (usually associated with Rheumatoid arthritis)
  • Overuse of the shoulder

Those who are at greatest risk for developing shoulder arthritis are those who partake in high intensity overhead activities, such as:

  • Weightlifters
  • Tennis players
  • Racquet sport players
  • Basketball players


In order to diagnose shoulder arthritis, your doctor will take an initial medical history and perform a physical examination. During the physical examination, your doctor will be looking for the following:

  • Muscle atrophy
  • Tenderness in the shoulder
  • The extent of passive and active range of motion
  • Signs of injury to the muscles, tendons and ligaments that surround the shoulder
  • A grating sensation upon movement of the shoulder
  • Pain when pressure is applied to the joint
  • Involvement in other joints
  • A history of when, and during what activities the shoulder hurts

Your doctor will also perform one or several of the following imaging exams:

  • An X-ray
  • A computed tomography (CT) scan
  • A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan

Treatments and Procedures

Presently, there isn’t a cure for arthritis. There are, however, many treatment options to help individuals manage their shoulder arthritis pain and stay active. In order to assist with the pain and the inflammation, your doctor may prescribe anti-inflammatory medicine.

Other forms of treatment for arthritis of the shoulder include:

  • Occupational therapy
  • Physical therapy (which involves the use of exercises and other treatments to reduce pain and inflammation, and improve range of motion)

In the most extreme cases, surgery may be recommended. The type of surgery that your orthopaedic surgeon will recommend depends on four primary factors, including:

  • The severity of the pain caused by the arthritis
  • Age
  • Activity level
  • The condition of the rotator cuff

In patients who have severe arthritis, joint replacement is generally an extremely effective surgery and typically renders excellent results. Shoulder arthroplasty involves the replacement of the damaged joint.

There are different forms of arthroplasty, including:
  • Total arthroplasty - both the head and the humerus and the glenoid will be replaced.
  • Hemiarthroplasty - only the head of the humerus is replaced with an artificial component.
  • Reverse total shoulder arthroplasty – a metal ball is affixed to the glenoid and a specialized socket is affixed to the upper end of the humerus.

Since the stiffness, pain, limited range of motion with shoulder arthritis can worsen over time, it is important to see a physician or orthopaedic surgeon early.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can shoulder arthritis cause neck or chest pain?

If you have rheumatoid arthritis, you may experience pain in your neck and chest as a result of your arthritis. When chest pain occurs as a result of rheumatoid arthritis, it is called costochondritis, a condition that is often mistaken for a heart attack. This pain is often a sharp, stabbing pain experienced in a small area near the center of your chest; a heart attack usually radiates to other areas of your body and is often accompanied by lightheadedness and sweating. It is always best to err on the side of caution and consult your physician if you are experiencing chest pain to rule out the potential of a heart attack.

Is there a CURE for shoulder arthritis?

There is currently no cure for shoulder arthritis. There are, however, many highly effective treatments to help you manage your shoulder pain without being sidelined from your favorite activities – whether they are weekend sports, gardening, or professional pursuits.

Ways to ease shoulder arthritis pain?

Your doctor may prescribe anti-inflammatory medications to ease the pain and inflammation associated with your shoulder arthritis. Other treatment options include things like chiropractic treatments, physical therapy, occupational therapy, exercising, rest, corticosteroid injections, heat and/or ice therapy.

If your arthritis is severe, you may consider consulting your orthopaedic surgeon about the possibility of shoulder arthroplasty. The earlier you schedule an appointment with your orthopaedic surgeon, the better your results are likely to be.

What does shoulder arthritis feel like?

Initially, shoulder arthritis symptoms include things like stiffness in your shoulder, pain at night, and difficulty using your shoulder for lateral and overhead movements. Some patients describe it as feeling a deep ache in the affected shoulder. You may experience some pain that is severe enough to disrupt sleep. Your shoulder pain may worsen upon activity and with changes in weather.

As the condition progresses, you may experience pain that radiates to other areas, especially your arm and occasionally your neck or chest. The pain and stiffness of your arthritis may come and go over time and may be exacerbated by weather changes.

Who can help me treat shoulder arthritis?

Your physician may be able to treat initial stages, though if you have severe shoulder arthritis or your condition is deteriorating rapidly, you may want to schedule an appointment with your orthopaedic surgeon at O’Grady Orthopaedics. Dr. O’Grady and his staff use cutting-edge technology in all aspects of treatment, so they can offer minimally invasive procedures and expert care to help you find relief from your shoulder arthritis pain.