Shoulder Tendonitis

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Senior man suffering with shoulder pain, possibly tendonitis, during workout

Shoulder tendonitis (or tendinitis) is an injury caused by inflammation of your biceps or rotator cuff tendons. The rotator cuff tendons may have become trapped in your shoulder socket. The pinching they experience there (as you move your arm around) can cause them to become irritated and inflamed.

Shoulder tendonitis is also commonly known as rotator cuff tendonitis when the injured tendons are those of the rotator cuff. It is a common injury among athletes in sports that require extensive throwing, bowling or smashing actions. Workers in occupations that require extensive overhead activity also tend to show a high rate of susceptibility to this injury.

Other names by which this injury is sometimes known are rotator cuff impingement or shoulder impingement.

If you have shoulder tendonitis, you will experience difficulty performing overhead actions (such as painting, for example). You will lack arm/shoulder  strength when trying to perform such functions. In addition, your shoulder range of motion will be reduced.

Shoulder tendonitis is usually treated by resting the shoulder or biceps tendons and allowing them to recover naturally. Anti pain or anti inflammatory medications may also be prescribed.


The rotator cuff muscles and tendons surround the socket in the shoulder blade. The “ball” at the top of the upper arm bone is located in this socket. The rotator cuff muscles control the movement of your upper arm in all dimensions.

The rotator cuff muscles are also instrumental in helping you to hold your arm above your head. They play critical roles in performing a wide range of everyday actions. These include, for example, dressing and combing your hair. They are critical even in playing sports like tennis or baseball (when throwing or other complex shoulder movements are needed).

If the rotator cuff tendons are overused they may become trapped inside the shoulder socket. As a result, they may be pinched by the ball at the top of the upper arm.

Over time, as you use your arm, this can lead to irritation of those tendons and then to inflammation.

Shoulder Tendonitis Risk Factors

The risk factors for shoulder tendonitis may include:

  • Participating in certain sports that require plenty of throwing, smashing or other overhead actions (tennis, baseball and cricket, for example);
  • Being in an occupation in which you have to perform overhead activities like painting or carrying heavy loads. Painting and construction are examples;
  • Having tight or underdeveloped shoulder joint muscles;
  • An imbalance of the strength of muscles around the shoulder joint;
  • If you have experienced a shoulder trauma (such as a direct blow to the shoulder or a fall onto it).  This can increase your risk of subsequently developing shoulder tendonitis;
  • Poor posture, e.g. having rounded shoulders, can also increase your susceptibility to rotator cuff tendonitis.


Common shoulder tendonitis symptoms may include the following:

  • Pain and possible swelling at the tip of your shoulder. You may also have pain from the outer side of your upper arm;
  • Difficulty holding your arm in certain positions, especially above shoulder level;
  • Reduced arm and shoulder strength;
  • Reduced shoulder range of motion – you may find it difficult to reach behind your back, for instance.

If the condition is not treated, the symptoms can worsen as follows:

  • The shoulder pain may intensify at night, particularly if you lie on the side of the injured shoulder;
  • You will experience even more loss of upper arm strength. For example, you may have difficulty supporting an object of even moderate weight at shoulder level with your arm outstretched;

It’s important to note that the symptoms of shoulder tendonitis can be very similar to those of other shoulder injuries. For example,  the symptoms of a torn rotator cuff can closely resemble those listed above.

In addition, shoulder tendonitis may often co- exist with other problems such as shoulder bursitis. You should therefore seek medical advice if you experience some or all of the above symptoms.


Your doctor will likely start the diagnosis process with a thorough review of your medical history. He or she will note in particular any previous shoulder injuries.

Next, your doctor will likely perform a thorough physical exam of your injured shoulder. You may be asked to move your arm over your head and report any pain or difficulty when doing so.

Finally, your doctor may request an imaging study to better understand any damage to shoulder structures that you may have. Imaging studies may include X-rays, an MRI or an ultrasound exam.

Treatment Of Shoulder Tendonitis

Your doctor may conclude that you indeed have shoulder tendonitis. If so, he or she can prescribe a range of conservative (non surgical) treatments. They may include:

  • Resting your shoulder by temporarily avoiding activities that may aggravate the shoulder muscles or tendons. Wearing an arm sling, for example, can relieve the shoulder of bearing the weight of the arm, which will help;
  • A shoulder brace can also help to relieve pressure on the shoulder. It can protect the joint from stresses that might slow down the recovery process;
  • For relief of pain, your doctor may suggest pain relief medications like Tylenol. If you need to relieve both pain and swelling, you can try an anti inflammatory medication like Advil;
  • Corticosteroid injections can also help to relieve pain and inflammation;
  • Physical therapy exercises will likely be suggested by your doctor. They will help to stretch and strengthen your shoulder muscles. The result will be less risk of re-injury once you have resumed your regular activities.

If your shoulder tendonitis is severe, your doctor may suggest surgical intervention. However, surgery is rarely required for treatment of this injury.

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