Arthritic degeneration of the shoulder joint may begin months or years before symptoms appear. Many people initially attribute their occasional shoulder osteoarthritis pain and stiffness to lack of exercise or getting older.

Recognizing of the signs of shoulder osteoarthritis can lead to treatment, which can slow down the disease’s progression.

Common signs and symptoms of shoulder osteoarthritis include:

  • Shoulder pain. Tenderness and pain due to glenohumeral osteoarthritis is usually felt deep at the back of the shoulder. Pain is typically felt during the middle-range of motion rather than at the extremes of flexibility. Moderate to severe shoulder arthritis may cause a dull aching or intermittent flare-ups of pain at night, making it difficult to sleep.
  • Stiffness or loss of motion. Aside from pain, a major symptom of shoulder arthritis is a decreased range of motion. This loss of motion is observed even during “passive” shoulder motion made with assistance (such as a doctor or physical therapist trying to rotate the arm). This symptom can make bathing, getting dressed, and other daily activities challenging.
  • Catching. When the shoulder “catches” an otherwise fluid movement is unintentionally interrupted. Catching is often associated with popping or crunching sound.
  • Crepitus. Feeling a crunching or hearing a popping sound when rotating the shoulder may be a sign that cartilage has worn away and is not protecting the bones from friction. The medical term for this symptom is “crepitus.”

    See What Is Crepitus?

  • Weakness and muscle atrophy. Many people with shoulder arthritis avoid painful movements and lifting objects, which can in turn lead to muscle atrophy and weakness.
  • Inactivity makes it worse. The shoulder can become stiff after a long period of inactivity (e.g. sleeping at night) and feel better after a short bout of easy or moderate activity. Shoulder pain that is worse after repetitive activity may be a symptom of shoulder bursitis.
  • Swelling. When arthritis causes friction between bones, the surrounding soft tissues can become irritated and swell. Swelling can occur in shoulder arthritis, though it is typically less pronounced than in other types of arthritis, such as knee or hand arthritis.

In most but not all cases, the symptoms of shoulder osteoarthritis come and go, becoming worse and more frequent over months or years. Shoulder osteoarthritis pain may flare up after high intensity activities, such as tennis or golf.


If shoulder pain comes on suddenly, it is more likely to be caused by trauma or another condition, not by shoulder osteoarthritis. If the shoulder feels hot or the skin around the joint turns red, then osteoarthritis is probably not the culprit. An infection, rheumatoid arthritis, or another condition may be the cause.

Dr. Ana Bracilovic is a physiatrist at the Princeton Spine and Joint Center, where she has more than a decade of experience specializing in the diagnosis and non-surgical treatment of spine, joint, and muscle pain.