Sometimes moving your shoulder can trigger a clicking sound or a popping sensation near where the joint connects at the top of your arm. That popping feeling is called crepitus.
In some cases, there’s a sharp pain or warmth that comes along with a cracking, grinding, or popping shoulder. That pain can be a symptom of other health conditions or an injury. Shoulder pain, injuries, and stiffness are the third most common muscle and joint issue that bring people to the doctor.
Your shoulder is arranged in a ball-and-socket joint configuration. Your humerus bone fits underneath and inside of your scapula, or shoulder blade, and four muscles called the rotator cuff connect them. A structure made of cartilage, called the labrum, acts as a sort of soft cup inside your shoulder blade that holds your arm in place.
Your shoulder joint is connected in a way that enables maximum mobility of your arms. The same anatomy that enables a full range of motion also leaves your shoulder more vulnerable to injury than your other joints.
Here are some common causes of that popping sound you may be hearing.
Fluid-filled sacs called bursa protect your joints and help the surfaces of your joint and socket to move in harmony. When the bursa become inflamed, you may feel a painful stabbing or warmth and hear a “pop” when you try to move your arms in any direction. This condition is also known as snapping scapula syndrome.
Malunion of fractures of the scapula or ribs
A shoulder fracture can happen because of a car accident, contact sports, or a fall — among other reasons. While the pain of your injury may be long gone, an occasional grinding or popping sound could be a permanent side effect. Even a hairline fracture, if it doesn’t heal correctly, can cause a popping sensation in your shoulder.
When your bones fuse together after being separated, ridges can be created along your shoulder blades or ribs. These ridges are more prone to catch or rub against your muscles and sometimes make an audible noise.
A structure made of cartilage called the labrum can become torn because of overuse, age, or injury. Labral tears are often quite painful. These tears create a grinding or popping sound when you try to use your shoulder for any reason. Rather than an occasional pop or pain, labral tears create a consistent pain and discomfort with nearly any activity.
A benign growth in your shoulder, scapula, or rib cage called an osteochondroma can cause your shoulder to crack at times when you raise your arm. These kinds of growths are the most common benign bone growths. Sometimes people with these growths have no other symptoms.
Sometimes, working out or simply raising your shoulders quickly can release gas from your joints, like what happens when you crack your knuckles. In these cases, there’s no underlying condition or pain that’s connected to your shoulder cracking.
This kind of sound is related to cavitation, or air bubbles in your joints. The exact mechanism of how this happens is unclear.
As you age, the spongy cartilage that keeps your bones from rubbing against each other can start to break down. A snapping or cracking sound in your shoulder could mean your bones are making contact with each other as a result. The sound of grating or cracking can be an early symptom of arthritis.
Crepitus in your shoulder joint doesn’t always cause pain. Your tendons and bones can make a cracking sound even when they’re working together perfectly. But if your joint cracking is accompanied by pain, it could certainly be a symptom of an injury or another health condition.
If the pain you experience follows a recent injury, there could be an internal muscle strain, tear, or fracture that needs to be addressed. Your shoulder might feel fine until you try to move it in certain directions. If you’re greeted with a cracking noise and radiating pain every time you raise your arm, you should see a doctor.
If shoulder injuries aren’t treated properly, the intricate system of tendons and muscles that holds your joint together can become impaired. Sometimes, shoulder injuries that don’t heal properly result in a condition called “frozen shoulder,” which restricts your range of motion.
Common treatments for recurring shoulder pain include:
- corticosteroid injections
- anti-inflammatory medications
- physical therapy
- chiropractic adjustment of your bones
- massage therapy
In other cases, over-the-counter pain relievers might be all you need. A doctor will decide on a treatment plan depending on what’s causing your shoulder condition.
In some cases, home remedies are enough to treat shoulder pain. If your shoulders simply crack or pop occasionally without causing you a great deal of discomfort, you might want to try treating your crepitus at home. Consider trying a few of these home remedies when you feel your shoulder popping:
Working to sit straight up while you’re at your computer or driving may make a world of difference in how your shoulders feel. Good posture can end chronic shoulder pain for some people.
Foam rollers, frequently used by physical therapists, are relatively inexpensive and can be easily purchased for home use. These rollers stimulate the soft tissue in your shoulder. If your shoulder pain is caused by soreness, sitting all day, or poor posture, at least one study suggests that this kind of manual therapy can help.
Research tells us that yoga may be an effective way to minimize and improve shoulder pain over time. Yoga has the added benefit of improving posture and breathing while you practice.
Cold compress or ice
If your shoulder is injured, applying a cold compress or ice can reduce inflammation. This may numb your pain and decrease swelling. A cold compress may also help your shoulder injury to begin healing faster.
A review of several studies that focused on cold compress after a muscle or bone injury indicates that it’s almost always better than no treatment at all.
Shoulder popping and discomfort isn’t uncommon, but finding your specific cause can be a little tricky. If you notice redness, swelling, or warmth around your shoulder joint, make an appointment with a doctor to discuss your concerns. Be sure to mention any recurring pain or discomfort that happens with daily activity.