Your shoulders are some of the most “freely moveable” areas in your entire body, which means your shoulder joints may encounter a lot of wear and tear throughout your life. Shoulder arthritis is one particularly painful condition that affects the shoulder joints.

When arthritis — basically a catch-all term for joint pain or joint disease — affects the shoulder, it can cause symptoms such as shoulder joint pain and limited range of motion. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), there can be five distinct forms of shoulder arthritis.

Keep reading for a rundown of the symptoms of the types of arthritis that affect the shoulders.

One common form of shoulder arthritis is an autoimmune condition called rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Because RA typically affects both sides of the body, if one shoulder is affected, it’s likely the other one will be, too. You might also experience:

  • tenderness, warmth, and swelling in your joints
  • a stiff feeling in your shoulders, especially in the morning
  • rheumatoid nodules, which are bumps that form under the skin on any pressure surface like elbows, finger joints, or shoulder joints
  • fatigue, weight loss, or fever

RA causes your joint linings to swell, which in turn causes joint stiffness and pain. If left untreated, it can cause the erosion of shoulder bones and deformity of shoulder joints over time.

Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most prevalent form of arthritis and is caused by cartilage breakdown at the ends of bones where they meet to form joints. When the ends of these bones rub together, the cartilage loss causes stiffness, pain, and loss of joint mobility.

OA can affect the shoulders as well as other joints like those in your knees, hands, and hips. According to the AAOS, individuals over the age of 50 are more likely to develop OA.

When it comes to shoulder OA, activity typically increases pain.

If left untreated, the disease can gradually worsen over time, causing muscle weakness, joint instability, and loss of movement.

If you fracture or dislocate your shoulder, you may develop a form of osteoarthritis called post-traumatic arthritis (PA). Usually, the body can recover from post-traumatic arthritis on its own, but the condition can become chronic if symptoms persist for more than 6 months.

If PA is left untreated, the affected bones may harden, change shape, and become bumpy.

Most often affecting the hip, avascular necrosis — also known as osteonecrosis — can occur in any bone. The condition arises when there is a disruption of blood supply to a bone, causing bone cells to die. Over time, the bone gradually collapses, damaging the cartilage covering it, resulting in arthritis.

Avascular necrosis can cause shoulder arthritis by disrupting the blood supply to the head of the humerus bone (the long bone of the upper arm).

The causes of avascular necrosis can vary from heavy steroid usage to excessive alcohol consumption to traumatic injury to the area to sickle cell disease. In certain cases, there is no known cause. This type of avascular necrosis is known as idiopathic avascular necrosis.

If left untreated, this condition can gradually evolve from mild bone damage and pain to severe bone damage and pain, which may require surgical intervention.

Your rotator cuff connects your shoulder blade to the top of your arm through a collection of tendons and muscles. Injuries to the rotator cuff are common and can lead to a form of shoulder arthritis called rotator cuff tear arthropathy.

When the rotator cuff is torn, there is a loss of joint pressure, movement, and stability in the shoulder. If the rotator cuff is unable to heal, or if the tear is too big, these injuries cause cartilage and bone damage, resulting in rotator cuff tear arthropathy.

This particular type of shoulder arthritis can lead to severe pain and weakness if left untreated, making it extremely difficult for someone dealing with it to lift their arm above their head.

The first sign of shoulder arthritis is pain in the general area, although the type of pain and the timing may vary. For instance, some people may feel a deep kind of pain in their shoulder joint, while others may feel a radiating pain around the side of their neck.

Limited range of movement is another symptom of worsening shoulder arthritis.

If you’ve had an outstanding injury in your shoulder area or have been feeling stiffness or an ache that isn’t going away, the first step is to talk with your doctor. They will most likely check the affected area for muscle weakness, tenderness, range of movement, and a “grating sensation” inside the joint when it is moved.

The next step will most likely consist of shoulder X-rays so your doctor or specialist can take a look at your bones and see if any changes have occurred.

Lastly, your doctor may inject a local anesthetic into the joint where the pain seems to be radiating. If the pain is temporarily relieved, a diagnosis of arthritis is likely.

Shoulder arthritis is treatable. Talk with your doctor about the best treatment for your specific condition. Depending on your diagnosis, symptoms, and disease progression, your doctor may recommend:

  • physical therapy exercises to improve the range of motion in your shoulder
  • hot or cold therapy, which consists of icing or heating the area for 20 to 30 minutes at a time, a few times a day
  • maintaining a nutrient-dense diet, low in sugar and saturated and trans fats (like soda and processed foods, when possible), which have been shown to exacerbate arthritis inflammation and symptoms
  • nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs), like aspirin or ibuprofen, which can help reduce inflammation and pain
  • disease-modifying drugs, such as methotrexate, especially if you have RA
  • corticosteroids injections, such as cortisone, directly into your shoulder for a short-term reduction of inflammation and pain

If your doctor recommends surgery for shoulder arthritis, there are a number of surgical interventions available. Depending on your condition, these treatments include:

  • Arthroscopy. Milder forms of arthritis can sometimes be treated with an arthroscopic procedure. This involves a surgeon relieving joint pain through small incisions and a “cleaning out” of your joint. A tiny camera is inserted into the joint and this camera guides the surgeon.
  • Joint replacement surgery. Also called arthroplasty, joint replacement of the shoulder involves replacing the parts of the shoulder damaged by arthritis with an artificial prosthetic joint.
  • Resection arthroplasty. A doctor may recommend this procedure when no other reconstructive options are possible. The humeral head, or any prosthetic implants that have previously been inserted, are removed — usually due to infection or unsuccessful previous surgery.

Since pain and stiffness associated with shoulder arthritis can worsen over time, it’s important not to ignore symptoms. Reaching out to your doctor and getting a proper diagnosis is the first step toward easing symptoms and regaining quality of life.

While a diagnosis of shoulder arthritis may feel overwhelming at first, there are many ways to ease the symptoms, from more natural approaches to medical interventions.