Referred shoulder pain is a condition in which pain is experienced in the shoulder area although it originates a different area of the body, commonly in the neck or spine. Perhaps the most commonly known example of referred pain is the pain experienced in the left arm during a heart attack.

Understanding Referred Shoulder Pain

Referred pain is common in the human body due to the many nerves that originate in the spinal cord and branch out into the trunk and limbs. These nerves pass through or around varied structures, joints, and tissues.  Referred shoulder pain is sometimes related to structural damage in the shoulder joint, ligaments, or tendons, but can also result from problems in the cervical spine, chest, or abdomen. Additional causes include infections and neurological disorders.

Referred shoulder pain or “shooting pain” is sometimes associated with movement pathologies within the shoulder. A thorough evaluation from a medical professional is needed to ascertain the pain’s true origin. Muscle impingement in the upper back is sometimes responsible for referred shoulder pain in sports, specifically. This is most often associated with activities involving aggressive twisting and bending movements in the upper torso such as baseball, football, tennis, and martial arts.

Signs & Symptoms of Referred Shoulder Pain

  • Sharp, intense pain in the shoulder
  • Dull, enduring shoulder pain
  • Weakness in the shoulder and upper arm
  • Numbness within the shoulder and upper arm
  • Changes in skin color
  • A feeling of coolness or clamminess in the shoulder and/or any part of the arm

Professional Treatment for Referred Shoulder Pain

  • Rest the affected shoulder.
  • Discontinue all activities that create pain in the shoulder or neck.
  • Utilize the latest physical therapy modalities and rehab devices to reduce swelling and decrease pain.
  • Perform physical therapy exercises to stretch the neck and upper back.
  • Consult with a medical professional if pain continues or limits activity.

Ask the Right Questions Like a Pro

Here’s what smart pro athletes would ask their sports medicine specialist to ensure a fast and safe return to the game they love:

1. Is my pain due to shoulder damage or something else?

2. How common is this injury in athletes who play my sport?

3. Will I need an MRI?

4. What is the recovery timeline for this injury?

5. Should I consult with a physical therapist, or is self-management indeed possible?

Elite Sports Medicine Tips from Mike Ryan

  • Ice it! – Treat any signs of inflammation or pain with regular icing intervals: twice an hour for 10-15 minutes should do the trick! Sure, it’s a chilly process, but icing is crucial to help decrease the pain.
  • Unsure? Be Sure – If you don’t know the source of your shoulder pain, stop all activity and see a doctor to get some answers.
  • Fix the Real Problem First – Pain located further down the arm can only be treated by first addressing the true source of the pain.
  • Know Your History – When considering referred pain of any type, it is important to know your medical history in an effort to help your doctor determine the cause of the pain.
  • Implement a Plan – After receiving an accurate diagnosis for your referred shoulder pain, be sure to adhere to a strict plan of treatment and time off to prevent re-injury.