5 signs your shoulder injury could be serious

I’m often asked how an athlete or active person can know if his or her shoulder injury is serious. Should he ice his shoulder and rest it for a day or two and see if his pain and use of the arm improve? Or should he go to an emergency room or see an orthopaedic surgeon right away?

Shoulder pain might make weights or other overhead sports difficult, but that pain shouldn't prevent all exercise.Similar to a post I wrote on signs that your knee injury could be serious, this post tries to offer some signs and symptoms that could represent a serious shoulder injury. This list is by no means comprehensive. It also is in no way meant to serve as specific medical advice, so please see your doctor or orthopaedic surgeon if you’re concerned or have questions about your shoulder injury.

Your shoulder popped out of place.
If you suffered a shoulder dislocation, especially a traumatic dislocation that required reduction in an emergency room, there is a good chance that you tore the labrum and/or stabilizing ligaments and stretched out the capsule. This fact is especially true if you are younger than 21 years old. Recurrent dislocations and instability can commonly result from these injuries, and sports medicine surgeons often treat these injuries with surgical stabilization.

You have an obvious deformity.
If you landed directly on your shoulder or someone hit you directly on your shoulder, it is possible you suffered a fracture or joint injury. An obvious deformity where part of the collarbone is sticking out likely represents a clavicle fracture. A large prominence at the top of the shoulder could signify an acromioclavicular joint (AC joint) injury. And the crooked appearance of the upper arm could represent a proximal humerus fracture.

You have difficulty lifting the arm.
Pain can make it difficult to lift your arm. If you can tolerate the pain and still do not have the strength to actively lift your arm (not using your other arm to do it), then you could have a rotator cuff tear or other structural injury.

You notice a clicking or popping sensation deep in the shoulder.
This symptom is tricky, because popping means different things to different people. While it is by no means a definitive sign of a labral tear, I’ve seen many young adults who complained of an uncomfortable popping in the front of the shoulder and deep within the shoulder. They Shoulder injuryoften feel it doing a bench press, military press, or push-up. Again, this complaint is not diagnostic, but it could represent a labral tear.

You have pain reaching across your body.
This sign can result from chronic issues in weightlifters, bodybuilders, collision sport athletes, and manual laborers. As such, it could represent distal clavicle osteolysis or osteoarthritis of the acromioclavicular joint (AC joint). After a traumatic injury, it could represent an AC joint injury.

Again, this is not at all a comprehensive list of signs and symptoms that a shoulder injury is serious. I would be curious to hear if you have other signs to add to this list. Also, this post is not intended to replace evaluation by physician. If you have suffered a shoulder injury and have specific questions or medical concerns, you should consider going to the emergency room or seeing your doctor or orthopaedic surgeon.

Have you suffered a shoulder injury? How did you know it was serious? If you are a healthcare provider, are there other signs and symptoms you would add to this list? Please share your experiences or thoughts below!

30 Responses to 5 signs your shoulder injury could be serious

  1. My arm had been doing this popping and clicking when I lift or do any circular motion, and I can’t push anything or lift anything.

    • I am feeling the same thing with a clicking sound but only feel it when I move it a certain way. Especially doing push ups

  2. I can’t move my left arm at all do to a fall. The back of my shoulder, near the ball of the shoulder is sticking out. It’s not my collar bone. I really not sure what the bone is called. Again, I have ruled out my collar bone. Most of the DR I’ve seen are totally confused at what’s going on. It doesn’t show up in the MRI or XRays. They see nothing more than inflammation and nerve damage. Is there another test I can get, that would show the DRs what’s really going on. The fact that I can’t move my left injured arm at all. Even if I give it all I got to lift my arm. It doesn’t move at all. I can move my wrist. I have quite a bit of numbness in my thumb. And the ball of my shoulder is numb. If there is someone out there that could help. I could really use it.

  3. I was leaning on shoulder and it popped forward. Now i have pain in front of shoulder and popping with movement. I am afraid to move my arm because of the pain. Should i go to the ER or can this wait until Monday? Resting with ice on shoulder.

    • Going to the ER is never a bad idea, because they could rule out an urgent problem like a dislocated shoulder. If a person’s pain is improving, he or she can often wait several days and see their doctor. Hope it turns out well, Anita!

      • I have less than 360degrees of movement and the pain is a 7 on a normal day but goes to a ten if moved wrong.hard to sleep and zero strength in my right arm

  4. I was running at full speed, chasing a fox that had one of the chickens. I scared the heck out of the fox but couldnt stop prior to the embankment…i became airborne and landed 10ft down. I impacted the left shoulder in the mid-air roll upon landing, then my right hip contacted, then was stopped by a rather large Cottonwood tree. At first nothing really hurt. Within a week there was pain at the top of my shoulder, pain when rotating my arm? The pain is when i have my arm fully extended upwards and when flexed backwards, otherwise a full rotation. There is pain in my arm pit, and into my neck, numbness in my radial and wrist. Sometimes hand goes numb. Yes, pain at night. Takes three sodium naproxen to get relief.

  5. I was playing volleyball at school when I felt a pop right in my shoulder/back Whew I was throwing the ball back. I waited about 2 days to see if I would get better. But I did not, I can’t hold the pencil right in order to write without pain. The pain bounces back in forth between my shoulder and the upper hand. Should I go to the emergency room?

  6. Two and a half weeks ago I reached too far with the vacuum attachment and felt a painful pop in my left shoulder. It doesn’t hurt at rest or with many movements, but often painfully catches or pops, especially when reaching across my body, reaching down, and reaching very high up, sometimes even while using bad posture where my shoulder slumps forward. I have to use my other arm to pull my elbow back to relax my shoulder for it to feel better. It got gradually better for about a week, so I was giving it time to heal, but it doesn’t seem to be getting better now. I want to give it more time before I go to the doctor, but my husband says I should go now. I don’t want to waste the cost of an appointment if they are just going to have me give it more time.

  7. I fell last night and somehow really pulled my shoulder. The pain was immediate, at first thought I may have broken something. I iced it last night. Today I have very painful mobility. I took 2 Aleve’s and the pain is still there. It hurts to raise the arm and to lift anything. Should I go to Urgent Care?

  8. Hi my right shoulder sticks up a D has done for years, it’s looks odd but I’ve gotten used to it, however now I’ve started cycling it hurts when I cycle for a period of 90 + mins. It feels like I need to click it back into place constantly but cant. Can anyone suggest or know if there’s a way to get rid of it or am I stuck with it? Thanks

  9. I fell in the icy drive feet went forward elbows went back to catch fall. landed on right elbow real hard. heard 2 joint pops and spilled my darn coffee. went to work then urgent care. nothing broken. took a week off work [mechanic]. ibuprophen helps me to sleep a few hours. two weeks in i can see a definite improvement in range and painless movement. then i lost balanced prying something at work fell back and caught myself on that side hand shocking the shoulder again. almost fainted from the pain. this is an injury that takes a very long time to heal. but you have to push it to the extent of some light pain daily. this will help it come back strong. no sudden movements or youll pay immediately and it will take at least 3 days to return to where you were in recovery. you use your shoulder for everything. while recovering you can use a strap around your neck to lift heavy objects while letting your hurt arm hang. good luck friend.

  10. A week ago I was tumbling on the wood gym floor and I felt my shoulder pop/snap and it hurt to lift it. The trainer told me to rest it for 24 hours. It has now been a week since the injury and the front of my shoulder hurts when I circle it and lift it at certain angles, also to hold it out with my elbow but up or down hurts. How long is recommended before seeing a doctor about the pain?

    • I don’t know that there is a specific amount of time. If an active person cannot do what she wants to do as well as she wants to do it because of an injury, it might be a good idea to see a doctor.

  11. Please answer. I cant really pull my arm back cuhs of the pain and it clicks multiple times in my shoulder. It fees deep within the front. Itsbee reoccuring for years so If I give it time it goes away but what do you think it is ??

  12. I recently played Rugby (contact). As I went in for the tackle, my right shoulder popped in then out which caused me to lose all my feeling and strength in my arm. The numbness goes away after 10 minutes but it hurt when I move my arm in circles. I have been having this for quite a few matches and the pain settles in a day or two. Should I get this checked?

  13. I have 3 of the 5 you mentioned. Im post op 1 year, and in more pain then before my surgery. All the drs around tell me physical therapy. Well my shoulder is bone on bone, not sure how physical therapy will help that. So i take pain meds and kill my liver because no one wants to help me. At this point i would take having my arm surgically removed to be free of pain.

  14. I was doing cable flies at the gym over a year ago now (if not longer) and hurt it at the time. I gave it a few days rest, and now it sometime cracks, but when it does (depending on how strong/loud the crack is) it can cause pain. My girlfriend also said (when leaning on my shoulder) that it sounds like it’s creaking. It’s not constant pain only when it cracks, then after it can be in pain for at most an hour. I was wondering if this is hospital worthy because I don’t want to feel like I’m wasting their time. Any advice would be appreciated! Thank you!

  15. Interesting page to read. A. Retired RN. Shoulder sore with upper movement at side, front and back. Much pain with use. Pain x 2 was. What now

  16. Okay about a year ago I slipped on wood stairs with socks on and I hit the back of my shoulder ever since then it has been nothing but a pain but after the fact that I fell I had x-rays done and they didn’t see anything wrong with it. What else can I do because my job is very depending on me being able to life a lot of weight and my shoulder just can’t do it anymore.

  17. took a fall this morning, tripped over the darn cat. I’m 64. I landed hard on my shoulder and elbow. Elbow is scratched. My arm, in the area between shoulder and elbow is very painful, especially when moving the arm up or across the body. Could I have a collarbone fracture?

  18. i am a softball player and while bating my shoulder pop and it started to hurt when i moved it or even straiten my arm. Should i go get it checked out?

  19. I tripped forward, to keep from hitting my head, I stuck out my arms and landed on palms and knees. I am hurting in my shoulders and left hands is stiff. The pain is awful when I move a certain way. Sometimes I can’t sleep from the pain.

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