Is My Shoulder Pain from Arthritis or Bursitis?

The shoulder joint is a marvel of form and function—it is the only joint in the body designed to rotate a full 360 degrees. But this wide range of mobility also makes it prone to degeneration and injury.

When your shoulder is in pain, how do you know whether it's a degenerative form of arthritis or a more transient issue, like bursitis? It helps to know the major signs and symptoms of each and what to do if you suspect you may have one of these conditions.

A few key symptoms can indicate if your shoulder pain is caused
by osteoarthritis or bursitis.

Shoulder osteoarthritis: signs and symptoms

There are two main types of shoulder osteoarthritis. For both types, your symptoms will typically include some combination of these symptoms:

  • Pain that is worse with inactivity, such as pain that is most acute right after getting up in the morning or with your first movements of the day.
  • Pain that builds gradually—over months or even years—and gets worse in the long run.
  • Loss of range of motion. For example, you can't raise your arm over your head to put on a shirt.
  • Pain that gets worse with certain activities, such as lifting a bag of groceries (which is common with glunhemoral arthritis) or reaching across your body to buckle your seat belt (which occurs with acromioclaviuclar arthritis).

For in-depth descriptions on the two types of shoulder arthritis, see:

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Shoulder bursitis: signs and symptoms

Bursitis occurs when the bursa, a fluid-filled sac that protects the outside of the shoulder joint, becomes inflamed.

When shoulder bursitis develops, it can cause some symptoms that are similar to osteoarthritis, such as shoulder pain that gradually gets worse or pain that is triggered by movement, such as lifting your arm above your head.

One distinctive symptom of shoulder bursitis is the location of the pain. The bursa covers the top and outside of the shoulder, so pain and tenderness is centered there. Pain from bursitis can be triggered when you put pressure on this spot, such as when you lie down on your side.

Unlike osteoarthritis, in which the pain is worse after inactivity, bursitis pain is more acute with repetitive motion. In fact, repetitive motion can trigger bursitis. People who are prone to bursitis include painters, wallpaper hangers, tennis players, swimmers, and baseball pitchers.

Talk with your doctor

If you have any ongoing symptoms of shoulder pain, it's important to share them with your doctor so you can get the right diagnosis. Share with him or her as many details as you can about your symptoms, including when and how long they occur, what the pain feels like (throbbing vs. stabbing), and what you were doing when the pain started.

There are treatment options for shoulder arthritis and bursitis, so relief may be as close as a visit with your doctor.

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