Shoulder osteoarthritis – causes, diagnosis and treatment

Last modified: December 12, 2019

Overview of shoulder osteoarthritis

It is relatively uncommon to suffer from shoulder osteoarthritis compared to hips or knees. As a result, there is not as much research on this joint. Just as with other types of osteoarthritis, it gets more common with age. Age is not a risk factor in itself, though.

Signs of shoulder osteoarthritis

The first symptom of shoulder osteoarthritis is difficulty in moving the arm as usual. In other words, your shoulder feels stiff in its full range of movement. This makes it hard to use your muscles, which can lead to reduced strength. Swelling in the joint can also occur, as well as varying degrees of pain. This usually coincides with strain, but with time it can also develop at night while you are resting.

Causes of shoulder osteoarthritis

The synovial surface of all joints is covered in cartilage. Cartilage allows your joints to move without friction (resistance). Osteoarthritis affects the cartilage in the painful joint, making it more difficult to use. With time it also becomes painful. The reasons why the cartilage gradually breaks down is partly due to heredity, but mostly due to how the joints have been put under strain throughout life. Previous injuries also increase the risk of developing osteoarthritis in the shoulder.

Diagnosing shoulder osteoarthritis

Both national and international research shows that the diagnosis of osteoarthritis primarily should be determined by the clinical presentation. This means that the patient’s medical history and symptoms is the foundation for the diagnosis. Things to be considered include: long-term joint pain, reduced mobility, and stiffness (especially after periods of rest). An x-ray of the shoulder joint often gives a clear picture of reduced articular cartilage. However, in spite of this, an x-ray is not required for the diagnosis. An MRI examination of the shoulder joint is not required either. However, it can sometimes be used to distinguish osteoarthritis from other common conditions in the shoulder joint (such as chronic muscle strain).

Treating osteoarthritis in the shoulder

The first-line treatment for osteoarthritis is exercise. This works both to stimulate the cartilage to repair itself and to strengthen the muscles around the affected joint so they can relieve the strain on the joint. This also applies to osteoarthritis in the shoulder. Many of the generally recommended exercises are easy and can be performed at home. Although they’re usually easy to perform, the exercises should be coordinated by a physical therapist to ensure that they are customized to each individual.

It is generally better to exercise a joint by using low strain and working in both directions, known as eccentric training. A good tool to use for this is a rubber band, which is also relatively cheap. There are also cable machines in most gyms, which easily allow you to adapt the amount of weight used. Both methods should be used with a personal trainer or a physical therapist.

The training should not lead to increased pain, apart from when you are carrying it out. If there is significant pain after the exercises, you may be training harder than your body can handle. This could be a sign that you should reduce the intensity of the training.

Read more about foot osteoarthritis.