Glenohumeral (shoulder) osteoarthritis is usually most common in people over the age of 50. It’s typically caused by wear and tear of the shoulder joint. Various treatment options are available.

The glenohumeral joint is another name for your shoulder joint. This ball-and-socket joint is vulnerable to osteoarthritis due to its frequent use. It can wear down with age, causing pain and mobility issues.

If you have shoulder pain, it can be difficult to tell whether it’s from osteoarthritis or another underlying cause. Osteoarthritis often starts gradually and worsens over time. Injury or infection can cause more sudden bouts of shoulder pain.

This article reviews the symptoms of glenohumeral (shoulder) osteoarthritis, how doctors diagnose it, and what treatment options are available.

Illustration showing the shoulder joint, highlighting in red where the humerous meets scapulaShare on Pinterest
Illustration by Maya Chastain

Osteoarthritis can affect many parts of your shoulder, not just the glenohumeral joint.

Your shoulder anatomy includes the following:

  • Humerus: the upper bone of the arm
  • Scapula (shoulder blade): the wing-like portion of the back of the shoulder
  • Clavicle (collarbone): connects the arm to the body
  • Glenohumeral joint: where the head of the humerus (ball) meets the scapula (socket), allowing the shoulder to move in a circular motion
  • Acromioclavicular joint: where the clavicle meets the acromion (top portion of the scapula)

The acromioclavicular joint is another common site of shoulder osteoarthritis.

Over time, the cartilage that connects the bone or bones underneath the cartilage can become damaged. This can lead to glenohumeral osteoarthritis.

Key symptoms of this form of osteoarthritis include:

  • stiffness in the shoulder joint
  • joint pain
  • limited movement in the shoulder joint

Other causes of shoulder pain

Your doctor will seek to rule out other conditions as part of your evaluation for glenohumeral osteoarthritis. They can promptly identify and rule out some of these other potential conditions with a physical exam, X-ray, or MRI.

Other common causes of shoulder pain include:

Typically, glenohumeral osteoarthritis is a progressive condition. This means the pain may start out mild and worsen as time goes on. Shoulder pain that comes on very suddenly is likely a symptom of a more acute injury or infection instead.

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Glenohumeral osteoarthritis is a common condition, but doctors can sometimes have difficulty diagnosing it. Its symptoms are often similar to conditions related to the neck or an underlying injury to the shoulder.

Diagnosis will first begin with a physical examination and your medical history. Examples of questions a doctor may ask include:

  • When did your pain start?
  • Have you experienced any recent falls, accidents, or intense physical activity?
  • Do you have a history of injury or trauma to your shoulder?
  • Have you noticed any swelling or lumps at or around the shoulder?
  • Do you have neck pain?
  • Does pain travel down from your shoulder to your fingers?
  • What makes the pain worse? What makes it better?

Answering these questions can help your healthcare professional determine the next steps, including what tests to order. Imaging tests (radiography) used to evaluate osteoarthritis include:

A doctor may also ask you to move your arm, neck, and shoulder as part of your physical exam. And they’ll visually inspect the shoulder area for swelling or redness.

If your first stop is a primary care doctor, they may order further imaging or refer you to someone who specializes in treating joint conditions, like an orthopedic surgeon or rheumatologist.

Treatment for glenohumeral osteoarthritis will depend upon the severity of your symptoms and other individual health factors.

Conservative methods

Doctors will typically recommend conservative medical treatments first, such as:

Surgical options

Doctors may recommend more invasive surgical approaches in certain cases. This includes instances when your pain worsens, seriously lowers your ability to function in daily life, or doesn’t respond to conservative treatments.

Examples of surgical treatments for shoulder osteoarthritis include:

  • Shoulder arthroscopy: This procedure removes painful bony growths that develop in the glenohumeral joint. It can also help repair damage to the structures that support the shoulder, such as cartilage.
  • Shoulder hemiarthroplasty: This is a partial joint replacement procedure that involves replacing the humeral portion of the shoulder with an artificial implant.
  • Total shoulder replacement (TSR): This is the most comprehensive and invasive surgery. In a TSR procedure, a surgeon replaces both sides of the shoulder joint (the humeral and glenoid sides) with implants.

As with any surgery, there are unique benefits and risks to each procedure. Talk with your doctor about what your options look like for your specific case of shoulder osteoarthritis.

Infection and implant rejection are rare but potential complications.

Glenohumeral osteoarthritis is usually most common in people over the age of 50. According to a 2020 review article, older age is considered the most significant risk factor for osteoarthritis. That’s because the condition is a “wear and tear” disease where frequent use can wear down the joint over time.

However, there are other risk factors for glenohumeral osteoarthritis that may cause the condition, including:

  • a family history of osteoarthritis
  • gender; osteoarthritis is more common in people assigned female at birth
  • previous injury to the shoulder joint
  • employment in a job requiring repeated arm and shoulder activity
  • participation in a sport involving repeated use of the shoulder
  • obesity

However, not every person with one or more of these risk factors will have osteoarthritis. And some people may develop osteoarthritis in a different joint, commonly the hip or the knee.

Glenohumeral osteoarthritis can significantly affect one’s quality of life. A previous injury to the joint or natural wear and tear from age, among other factors, can cause it.

Pain often worsens over time and leads to serious effects, affecting your comfort and mobility.

A majority of cases respond well to OTC treatments, including taking NSAIDs.

However, if your symptoms don’t ease with OTC treatment, your doctor may recommend more invasive treatments, such as partial or total shoulder joint replacement.

Do not wait to address shoulder or other joint pain that affects your life. Talk with a doctor about your symptoms to get a timely diagnosis and help prevent further inflammation.