When Shoulder Pain May Mean Arthritis

Learn about the various causes of shoulder pain, including different kinds of arthritis. 

If you are experiencing pain, swelling and stiffness in the shoulders, you may have one of the following types of arthritis or related conditions. 


The most common form of arthritis, osteoarthritis (OA) is caused by the breakdown of the cartilage that covers the ends of the bones where they meet to form joints. Bones rub against each other due to the cartilage loss, causing stiffness, pain and loss of movement in the joint. Bony projections (spurs) can develop around the joint. In shoulder OA, pain often worsens with activity. It is estimated that nearly 1 in 3 people over the age of 60 have shoulder OA to some degree.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disease that occurs when the immune system over-reacts and attacks the joints. The result can be joint pain, swelling, inflammation and loss of function. RA usually affects joints on both sides of the body. That means if one shoulder is affected the other likely will be too.

Juvenile Arthritis

Juvenile arthritis is the term used to describe types of arthritis that affect children and teens 16 years old and younger. There are different types of juvenile arthritis that can cause pain, swelling and stiffness in the shoulders.


Bursitis is inflammation of small, fluid-filled sacs (bursae) that cushion and lubricate large joints, such as the knees, hips and shoulders. The result can be pain, swelling and tenderness in the affected area, particularly with movement. 


Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease, meaning that the body's immune system attacks healthy tissues, including the joints (and usually some internal organs). Large joints, including shoulders can be affected.

Infectious Arthritis

Also called septic arthritis, this disease is often caused by bacteria that spread through the bloodstream to the joint. Sometimes it is caused by viruses or fungi. Infectious arthritis can affect the shoulders. Symptoms usually come on rapidy and involve intense swelling, pain and fever. Infectious arthritis rarely affects more than one joint.

Reactive Arthritis

Reactive arthritis is a chronic form of arthritis that often occurs following an infection of the genital, urinary or gastrointestinal system. Large joints are often affected, especially the shoulders, hips and knees.

Arthritis-Related Conditions


Myositis belongs to a group of disorders that cause inflammation and muscle weakness. Weakness and pain in the muscles of the hips and shoulders is often a first sign of myositis. The weakness may make it difficult to lift heavy objects or even lift your arm to comb your hair or to put on a coat.

Polymyalgia Rheumatica

Polymyalgia rheumatica is a rheumatic disorder that causes pain and stiffness especially in shoulders and hips. It usually develops gradually but may come on suddenly. It is rare in people under the age of 50. Symptoms tend to affect both sides of the body and are worse in the morning. 

Getting a Proper Diagnosis

Other common sources of shoulder pain include tears, dislocations, sprains and or restrictive movement due to adhesions, or scar tissue. 

Arthritis is difficult to self-diagnose. Talk with your primary care doctor as soon as possible about your symptoms. You may be referred to a rheumatologist or orthopedist to get an accurate diagnosis so you can get the medical care you need. Left undiagnosed and untreated, your condition may worsen and cause disability.  


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