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Woman with shoulder arthritis

Osteoarthritis of the Shoulder: What You Need to Know

Feb 28, 2024

Osteoarthritis of the shoulder is a degenerative joint condition that occurs when the slippery smooth cartilage that lines the bones of the shoulder joint (ball-and-socket) breaks down and causes the rough and bumpy bones of the shoulder joint to rub and grind against each other. This causes pain and limited range of motion. Unfortunately, this process cannot be reversed or stopped. The progression is variable in each individual. Arthritis can be uncomfortable and significantly impact your quality of life.

What are the signs of arthritis in the shoulder?

What are your symptoms telling you? Here are some common signs of arthritis in your shoulder. 

The first symptom and most obvious is shoulder pain. This pain will feel persistent, localized, and will intensify when you move the shoulder.

Another sign is stiffness. People with osteoarthritis of the shoulder can have a limited range of motion in the shoulder joint.

It’s also not uncommon to experience swelling due to the inflammation and excess fluid in the the joint, called an effusion.

You may feel a sensation of grating or cracking while moving your shoulder. In some instances the shoulder can suddenly lock and unlock.

Ultimately, the muscles around the shoulder will weaken as you use your painful shoulder less. 

If you experience some or most of these conditions, you should get evaluated by an orthopedic shoulder specialist.

What causes arthritis in the shoulder?

The short answer to this question would be - the breakdown of the cartilage. However, this raises another question: what causes the cartilage to break down? Sure, aging is the natural process during which your entire body decays, but everyone ages, and not everyone develops osteoarthritis of the shoulder. So, what are some other factors?

•  The most common reason for this is either overuse or injury, such as fracture

•  Another contributing factor is genetic predispositions. Some people are more likely to struggle with osteoarthritis.

•  It may be a sign of rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, which can cause inflammation in your joints. When left untreated for too long, this could increase the breakdown rate of cartilage.

•  Joint instability from one or more dislocations will contribute to an accelerated wear and tear of cartilage in your shoulder. 

Identifying some of these factors in your life or lifestyle can be crucial to getting your shoulder checked early on while there’s still some time to react. The sooner you discover it, the better. 

What are the 4 stages of osteoarthritis in the shoulder?

Early detection of this condition is critical. Colloquially, osteoarthritis in the shoulder is often described as having four separate stages (five, if you count what’s described as Stage 0 - no osteoarthritis).

  • Stage 1: This is the early stage, sometimes even called the doubtful stage. Here, there are still no serious symptoms, which makes it more difficult for both the patient and the professional to diagnose it.
  • Stage 2: This is a mild or minimal stage. In this stage, the pain happens as a direct result of your activity. Straightening and bending of joints becomes difficult and there’s a consistent stiffness in your shoulder.
  • Stage 3: This is the moderate stage. During this stage, the pain becomes frequent with movement. The stiffness also happens during long periods of inactivity (like in the morning or after sitting for too long). The swelling of joints may be visible in this stage.
  • Stage 4: This is the last stage, the severe one. Here, the pain is high with joint usage and persistent even while you’re not using the shoulder. Daily activities are difficult, the stiffness is intense, and swelling and inflammation can be severe. 

Ideally, you would discover (or, at least suspect) osteoarthritis as soon as possible and start looking for professional help or medical advice.

What is the best pain reliever for arthritis in the shoulder?

Generally speaking, there are a few things you can do to alleviate pain in your shoulder.

•  Since swelling causes pain, cooling and heating therapy may help alleviate pain.

•  You can also try using NSAIDs to reduce both pain and inflammation.

•  If you cannot take NSAIDs, Tylenol can help ease pain. However, it won’t help the inflammation, which itself can cause pain.

•  Corticosteroid injections are one of the most effective ways to reduce joint inflammation, and shoulder osteoarthritis is no exception.

Still, the best way to stay safe is to consult a medical professional. 

What not to do with shoulder arthritis?

So far, we’ve mentioned that someone suffering from shoulder arthritis will suffer pain with shoulder use (even in the early stages of the condition). 

The conditions that make this worse are those that include:

  • Overhead lifting
  • Heavy pushing or pulling
  • High-impact activities
  • Prolonged repetitive movements
  • Unsupported arm use
  • Excessive reaching

Any activity that involves some or most of these motion patterns is making the situation worse. This is especially concerning for those who partake in hobbies and work in jobs where these motions are common. 

Shoulder arthritis treatment options

Generally speaking, there are two approaches to the treatment of this condition.

  • Conservative: Here, you can try to alleviate inflammation with oral medications, corticosteroid injections, physical therapy, activity modification, or heat or cold therapy.
  • Surgery: If everything else fails, joint replacement surgery is a reliable option. Since there are different types of replacements with different indications, seek the advice of an an orthopedic surgeon 

This is a major decision that should be made after careful consideration and consultation with your surgeon.

Wrap up

Once you develop osteoarthritis of the shoulder, you’ll understand how much you’re relying on your shoulder and how many shoulder movements you make in a day. The sooner you diagnose this problem, the better, since the earlier you discover it, the higher the odds are that the conservative treatment will be effective. 

You can learn more about osteoarthritis of the shoulder from the experts at the Orthopedic Institute of New Jersey.

This article was reviewed and approved by an orthopedic surgeon as we place a high premium on accuracy for our patients and potential patients.