Shoulder pain

You can usually do things to ease shoulder pain yourself. See a GP if it does not start feeling better after 2 weeks.

How to ease shoulder pain yourself

You usually need to do these things for 2 weeks before shoulder pain starts to ease.

It can take 6 months or longer to recover from shoulder pain.

Do

  • stay active and gently move your shoulder

  • try shoulder exercises for 6 to 8 weeks to stop pain returning

  • stand up straight with your shoulders down and gently back

  • sit with a cushion behind your lower back

  • rest your arm on a cushion in your lap

  • use pain relief so you can keep moving – try painkillers like paracetamol and ibuprofen, and heat or cold packs

Putting heat or cold packs on your shoulder

Try either a:

  • pack of frozen peas wrapped in a tea towel for up to 20 minutes, 3 times a day
  • hot water bottle wrapped in a tea towel for up to 20 minutes, 2 to 3 times a day

Don’t

  • do not completely stop using your shoulder – this can stop it getting better

  • do not do things that seem to make it worse

  • do not make up your own strenuous exercises or use heavy gym equipment

  • do not slouch when sitting – do not roll your shoulders or bring your neck forward

A pharmacist can help with shoulder pain

A pharmacist may suggest:

Non-urgent advice: See a GP if:

  • shoulder pain is getting worse or does not improve after 2 weeks
  • it's very difficult to move your arm or shoulder

Urgent advice: Ask for an urgent GP appointment or get help from NHS 111 if:

  • you have sudden or very bad shoulder pain
  • you cannot move your arm
  • your arm or shoulder has changed shape or is badly swollen
  • you have pins and needles that do not go away
  • there's no feeling in your arm or shoulder
  • your arm or shoulder is hot or cold to touch
  • the pain started after an injury or accident, like a fall
  • you develop severe pain in both shoulders
  • you feel feverish or unwell

These can be signs of something serious, like a broken or dislocated bone, or a torn (ruptured) ligament or tendon.

You can call 111 or get help from 111 online.

You could also go to your nearest urgent treatment centre.

Treatment from a GP

Physiotherapy for shoulder pain

A GP will examine you to work out what's causing your shoulder pain.

They might send you for tests (such as an X-ray) to check the cause.

They'll suggest a treatment based on the cause, for example:

The number of physiotherapy sessions you may have depends on the cause of your shoulder pain.

If you're still in pain after your sessions end, go back to the GP. They might prescribe more physiotherapy or suggest another treatment.

Physiotherapy is available through the NHS, but waiting times can be long. You can also pay to get physiotherapy privately.

Causes of shoulder pain

Shoulder pain that does not improve after 2 weeks might be caused by something that needs treatment.

But do not self-diagnose. See a GP if you're worried.

Shoulder symptoms Possible causes
Pain and stiffness that does not go away over months or years Frozen shoulder, arthritis (osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis)
Pain that's often worse while using your arm or shoulder Tendonitis, bursitis, impingement
Tingling, numb, weak arm, feels like the shoulder is clicking or locking Shoulder instability, sometimes because of hypermobility
Sudden very bad pain, cannot move your arm (or it's difficult), sometimes changes shape Dislocated shoulder, broken bone (such as a broken arm or broken collarbone), torn or ruptured tendon
Pain on top of the shoulder (where the collarbone and shoulder joint meet) Problems in the acromioclavicular joint, like dislocation or stretched or torn ligaments

Page last reviewed: 15 July 2020
Next review due: 15 July 2023