Shoulder bursitis is an inflammation of the bursa, a small sac filled with fluid that acts as a cushion between joints and soft tissues to reduce friction and allow joints to move smoothly. Bursitis can also affect the elbow, hip, foot or knee, but because the shoulder is subjected to a lot of repetitive motion, shoulder bursitis is very common.
As an orthopedic physician with expertise in shoulder injuries, I often see patients who are seeking help for the pain and mobility issues that can accompany shoulder bursitis (also known as impingement syndrome). Here are answers to the questions my patients ask most often about this condition:
What Causes Shoulder Bursitis?
Shoulder bursitis is most common in the large bursa near the top of the shoulder (called the subacromial bursa). A strain or injury to that tissue, often due to overuse, can cause irritation and inflammation that can lead to shoulder bursitis. Some common causes:
- Repetitive stress on the shoulder, such as throwing a ball or lifting your arms over your head, can make you more likely to develop shoulder bursitis.
- Kneeling and leaning forward on your elbows for extensive periods can put too much pressure on the bursa.
- The trauma of bumping your shoulder against a hard surface or falling on it can lead to bursitis.
- Shoulder bursitis is seen more often in people age 40 and older, as the aging process causes tissues to become less flexible and more prone to tears.
- Incorrect posture or a frequent hunching of the shoulders can put a squeeze on the tissues.
- Shoulder bursitis can be associated with other medical conditions such as arthritis, gout, tendonitis, diabetes, bone spurs or thyroid disorders. Although uncommon, an infection could be a factor as well.
What are the Symptoms of Shoulder Bursitis?
Swelling, tenderness and pain on the outer side of the shoulder are the most prominent symptoms of shoulder bursitis. When the shoulder has experienced overuse, the discomfort may be mild at first but gradually increases – or, after a trauma, it may be suddenly sharp and intense. Pain may worsen when the arm is raised or after prolonged, repetitive movements during activities such as painting or playing tennis. Muscle weakness is possible, and the shoulder joint may feel stiff, achy or warm to the touch.
How is Shoulder Bursitis Treated?
Conservative methods usually help relieve the shoulder pain caused by bursitis. Nonsurgical treatment options for shoulder bursitis include:
- Rest: Avoid activities that could strain the shoulder area and aggravate the condition, such as lifting, throwing or pulling. Giving the inflammation time to heal is key.
- NSAIDs: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen or naproxen, can alleviate discomfort and reduce swelling.
- Ice: Applying an ice pack several times a day, for about 15 minutes at a time, can help control pain and swelling.
- Physical therapy: A rehabilitation therapist can assist with exercises to gently stretch your shoulder muscles and maintain your range of motion. Often these can be done at home as well.
- Bracing: A shoulder brace or sling can keep the area immobilized and restrict movement to help the inflammation subside.
- Steroid injections: Injecting a corticosteroid into the bursa may relieve bursitis symptoms quickly. For many patients, more than one injection may be necessary.
- Aspiration: In some cases, shoulder bursitis may respond to the draining of the bursa fluid with a needle and syringe.
Is Surgery Necessary for Shoulder Bursitis?
Surgery is rarely required for treating shoulder bursitis, but if the condition does not improve after 6-12 months of conservative therapies, the bursa and some of the bone can be removed arthroscopically with small incisions.
Can Shoulder Bursitis be Prevented?
You can help lessen your risk of shoulder bursitis by avoiding overuse of the shoulder joint and minimizing strain in that area. Try these preventive measures:
- Strengthen the shoulder area with gentle, low-impact exercises
- Warm up and stretch before working out or doing other activities that require repetitive movements
- Take it slowly at first when you start a new exercise or sport
- Stop and rest frequently when doing repetitive tasks that involve the shoulder
- Don’t continue with any activity that feels painful
- Watch your posture so you don’t add pressure to the shoulder joint
If you are experiencing shoulder bursitis or another condition causing shoulder pain, we are here to help. To get more information or consult with our experts, call for an appointment at 913-319-7600.
About the Author
Lowry Jones, Jr., M.D. is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon specializing in conditions of the shoulder and knee, as well as workers’ compensation injuries. He also treats disorders of the foot and ankle, hip, back and elbow.
The medical information contained in the Dickson-Diveley Orthopaedics website is provided to increase your knowledge and understanding of orthopedic conditions. This information should not be interpreted as a recommendation for a specific medical or surgical treatment plan. As each patient may have specific symptoms or associated problems, the treatment regimen for a specific patient may not be the proper treatment for another.
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