Shoulder pain: Is it arthritis or bursitis?

Joint Health

by Baylor Scott & White Health

Jul 12, 2017

When you have shoulder pain, you might not know the cause. Robert Berry, DO, medical director of sports medicine at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Plano, said that pain from arthritis and bursitis can be similar. But here are some differences that he suggests you should be aware of.


Arthritis usually develops in older people, and slowly. The pain may be worse in the morning and ease as the shoulder warms up.

Sometimes arthritis pain can be lessened by modifying your activities. Repetitive motions such as weight-lifting or kayaking that causes stress on the shoulder should be reduced or stopped altogether. Don’t try to “work through the pain” as you may cause more damage to the joint. Applying heat to the joint will help it loosen up before an activity.

Physical therapy may also be beneficial, as long as it is not too aggressive. For immediate pain relief, applying a cold compress can decrease swelling. Pain relievers such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, aspirin or naproxen will also work to decrease pain. Topical creams can also be used, and are applied directly to the shoulder.

There is no sure way to prevent arthritis, but maintaining a healthy lifestyle can help reduce your risk factors.

Treating arthritis

There are several options for treatment to relieve pain and slow the progression of arthritis. All possibilities should be discussed with your doctor beforehand to choose the best option for you.

  • Supplements

Some people claim to experience relief from pain after taking glucosamine and chondroitin supplements. Before taking them, consult your doctor as they may interfere with other medications you take.

  • Injections

There are two types of injections that can be used to help treat severe pain from arthritis. Steroid injections help reduce swelling, while hyaluronic acid injections help lubricate the joint, making it easier to move and decreasing the stiffness in the joint. The relief from injections varies from person to person. An injection may be given by itself, or as a part of a holistic treatment plan.

  • Surgery

If other treatments are unsuccessful and the pain persists, surgery may be an option. There are several different types of shoulder surgery, and each has a different approach, with the ultimate outcome being pain relief. Surgery should be carefully considered, as these are major surgeries that have a long recovery process, and may have a limited lifespan depending on the type. Consult a doctor about your options.


Bursitis tends to affect younger people and comes on suddenly, sometimes overnight. It can follow repetitive overhead activities such as painting, lifting or throwing a softball or baseball.

Treating Bursitis

  • Bursitis can be treated at home with rest, ice, over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medicines such as ibuprofen, aspirin or naproxen. Additionally, whatever movement or action caused the pain in the first place should be avoided until the pain dissipates. If you’re not seeing improvement in about a week, you should talk to your doctor, as the pain may be indicative of a more serious problem.
  • Stretching or warming up before an activity is an easy way to help prevent bursitis.

If your shoulder pain continues, find an orthopedic specialist or shoulder specialist who can help you move better.

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