The shoulder is one of the most mobile joints in the human body with nearly 360 degrees of motion across several planes. It is also a complex joint that has over a dozen muscles working together to move, twist, or raise the arm. This generous range of motion, however, can sometimes challenge muscle and ligament stability. Overusing this joint can lead to shoulder pain, a common symptom of rotator cuff disorder.


The humerus, scapula, and clavicle are the three main bones of the shoulder. Also known as the ball portion of the shoulder, the humerus refers to the upper arm bone. The triangular shaped scapula, located on the back of the thorax, attaches to most of the muscles used for shoulder motion. The clavicle consists of two joints of the shoulder girdle: the acromioclavicular (AC) joint and sternoclavicular (SC) joint. The clavicle, which runs from the sternum to the tip of the scapula, is the only true bony connection of the axial skeleton and shoulder girdle. From a physical therapy perspective, clavicle dysfunction can cause a lot of problems.


Common forms of rotator cuff tendonitis include tennis shoulder, swimmer’s shoulder, and shoulder impingement syndrome. Tendonitis is a medical term used to describe swelling or inflammation. One of the main symptoms of rotator cuff disorder is shoulder pain. Patients may experience pain or discomfort when the arm is moved to the side or overhead. In some cases, patients also experience shoulder and arm weakness.

Shoulder pain often worsens when individuals engage in everyday activities, including everything from lying down to brushing their hair. While patients usually report pain when they attempt to push objects away from the body, pulling actions tend to be less painful. Tendonitis causes the rotator cuff tendon to tear, weakening the shoulder and making it difficult for patients to perform overhead movements with their arms.


Common causes of rotator cuff shoulder pain include:

  • Trauma from activities in which patients’ arms are repeatedly moved overhead
  • Torn muscles or tendons
  • Sports injuries from tennis, swimming, or baseball
  • Certain occupations such as house painting (motions place significant stress on the shoulders and cause inflammation in tendons and/or the bursa)

Bursa refers to a fluid-filled sac that cushions the joint.


Yes, shoulder pain or rotator cuff tendonitis can typically be treated without surgery. Physical therapists and doctors will first review the patient’s medical history and conduct a physical examination. The process involves moving the patient’s arm and shoulder in specific ways to identify pain and limitations. Magnetic Resonance Imaging technology (MRI) is typically used to detect tears.

If the shoulder pain is not caused by a serious issue, patients may be able to recover by using ice packs and prescribed NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) to treat pain and inflammation. It is important to note that these drugs may cause side effects such as stomach pain or bleeding. Alternatively, some patients may be prescribed physical therapy to strengthen rotator shoulder tendons and help reduce pain.

If your shoulder pain is interrupting your sleep or affecting your quality of life, it is recommended to consult with a professional physical therapist before using any medication.