It’s not unusual to have shoulder pain after absorbing the impact from a few hard tackles, repetitive movements performed while working, or a workout routine. Most instances of shoulder pain are due to rotator cuff tears, damaged cartilage or tendons, or swollen bursa sacs that normally protect the shoulder joint, but there are times when shoulder-related discomfort might be linked to something going on within the neck. The Los Angeles spine surgeons at The Spine Institute explain how to tell if this is the case and what you can do about it.
Localized and/or Radiating Pain
Depending on which nerves in the neck area are compressed, pain stemming from a nerve in the neck may appear to be localized in the shoulder area. Usually one shoulder is mainly affected by nerve-related pain, although the pain may be more central between shoulders if certain nerve groups are irritated. Oftentimes, nerve compression causes pain to extend to the arm or as far down as the wrist or hand.
Numbness and Tingling
A common sign of nerve compression in the neck (cervical radiculopathy) is discomfort accompanied by numbness, tingling, or “pins-and-needles” sensations. These symptoms may extend throughout the arm as well.
Pain Associated with Head and Neck Movements
It’s understandable for shoulder-based pain to become worse if you try to move your shoulder. However, if the problem is in your neck, shoulder pain may become worse when you make certain head or neck movements, not just shoulder and arm motions. You may also notice:
- Shoulder pain accompanied by neck stiffness
- Constant dull or sharp pain
- General weakness in the shoulder and neck area
What Causes Neck-Related Shoulder Pain?
Neck-related shoulder pain is sometimes caused by degenerative conditions like arthritis of the neck (cervical osteoarthritis). Over time, inflammation can contribute to extra bone growth, which may reduce spacing between joints and irritate nearby nerve roots.
With cervical degenerative disc disease, discs in the neck become thinner because they don’t retain water as well. Since thinner discs don’t provide the same level of cushioning, normal neck movements may place more pressure on nerves that connect with other nerves in the shoulders and arms.
Disc degeneration or sudden trauma can result in a disc that becomes herniated, meaning inner disc material pushes outward enough to irritate nerve roots. Vertebral bodies can also slip out of place (cervical spondylolisthesis) and trigger radiating nerve pain. Shoulder pain may also develop due to the following neck-related issues:
- Cervical foraminal stenosis – A small hole in a vertebra becomes abnormally narrow and compresses the nerves that travel through it
- Cervical facet syndrome – Osteoarthritis causes small joints in the neck to become damaged enough to put added stress on nerves
- Cervical bone spurs – If a nerve is affected by growths called bone spurs (cervical osteophytes), symptoms can include neck stiffness and pain, numbness, and weakness radiating to shoulders, arms, and hands.
If the cause of radiating neck pain felt in your shoulders is minor neck strain or sprain, anti-inflammatory and pain medications may provide sufficient relief. Immobilization with a soft or firm neck brace may be recommended to allow tissues to heal if symptoms are more disruptive or aggravated by movement. Surgery could become an option if the source of your shoulder pain is structural damage affecting your cervical spine or its supporting discs or small joints.
If you’re experiencing chronic pain in your spine, get in touch with a trusted spine specialist to find out if you need a procedure such as a lumbar foraminotomy. Los Angeles patients can reach out to The Spine Institute at 310-828-7757.