The Basics

Your shoulders are the location of your body’s most mobile joints. Shoulder joints take a lot of wear and tear and therefore have the potential to become unstable. Shoulder arthritis is one particularly painful condition that affects the shoulder joints.

Arthritis doesn’t only damage your muscles and tendons but also your joints and ligaments. Shoulder arthritis generally causes symptoms such as joint pain and limited range of motion. But there’s more than one kind of arthritis of the shoulders. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) has identified five distinct forms of shoulder arthritis. Keep reading for a rundown of symptoms of the five types of arthritis that affect the shoulders.

One common form of shoulder arthritis is an autoimmune condition called rheumatoid arthritis (RA). You may have pain in both shoulders at once if you have RA. You might also experience:

  • tenderness and warmth in your joints
  • a stiff feeling in your shoulders, especially in the morning
  • rheumatoid nodules, which are bumps under your skin in your shoulders or arms
  • fatigue, weight loss, or fever

RA affects your joint lining and can cause joint swelling as well. It can cause erosion of your shoulder bones and deformity of your shoulder joints over time.

The classic form of arthritis associated with wear and tear is osteoarthritis (OA). This can affect the shoulders as well as other joints like your knees, hands, and hips. The AAOS reports that older people (over age 50) are more likely to develop OA.

This challenging form of arthritis — which is more common than any other type, according to the Mayo Clinic — is characterized by a combination of joint pain, tenderness, and stiffness.

You may develop a form of arthritis called post-traumatic arthritis (PA) if you’re injured. Since shoulder injuries are commonly due to the shoulder joint’s instability, injuries such as shoulder fractures and shoulder dislocations may eventually lead to PA. Sporting injuries and other accidents can also cause this condition.

PA of the shoulders can cause fluid to build up in your shoulder joint, pain, and swelling.

A condition called avascular necrosis (AVN) can result in shoulder arthritis by destroying the joint tissues in your shoulder. It’s caused when blood cannot reach your humerus bone (the long bone of the upper arm). This can cause cells in your shoulder bone to die.

This can happen due to joint dislocations and bone fractures. It can also be a result of taking steroids at high doses and drinking too much alcohol.

AVN is a progressive disease, meaning it worsens over time. It can gradually evolve from an asymptomatic disease to mild pain and eventually it can cause severe pain.

Your shoulder contains a rotator cuff, which connects the shoulder blade with 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.

A rip in the tendons of the rotator cuff is generally what causes this condition. Arthritis develops in your shoulder when bones in the shoulder are damaged. Symptoms include intense pain and muscle weakness that can make lifting overhead difficult.

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

  • lifestyle changes, such as range-of-motion exercises, physical therapy, or rest
  • medications such as ibuprofen or aspirin to calm inflammation and reduce pain
  • shoulder injections with corticosteroids (like cortisone)
  • surgery, if nonsurgical treatments fail to relieve symptoms

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

  • 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.
  • Arthroscopy: Certain milder forms of arthritis can be treated with an arthroscopic procedure. This involves a surgeon relieving joint pain through small incisions and “cleaning out” your joint. A tiny camera is inserted into the joint and this camera guides the surgeon.
  • Resection arthroplasty: This procedure involves surgically removing bone from your collarbone. In its place, scar tissue develops, which helps arthritis of specific joints.

Talk to your doctor if you or a loved one experiences shoulder pain or other symptoms that may be related to arthritis. Since pain and stiffness associated with shoulder arthritis can worsen over time, it’s important that you don’t ignore symptoms. Your doctor may order several tests to diagnose arthritis of the shoulder, such as blood tests and MRI or CT scans.