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What Is a Shoulder Strain?

An anatomical illustration including many of the muscles in the shoulder.
Overexertion during physical activity can lead to shoulder strain.
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  • Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 09 December 2014
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Shoulder strain is a type of shoulder injury in which inflammation of the muscles in the shoulder causes recurring pain. The strain may be due to overexertion during physical activity, an injury sustained in an accident, or the development of some type of ongoing health issue. In many cases, shoulder strain can be successfully treated with a combination of rest and medication that helps to minimize the distress, and allow the shoulder to heal.

A shoulder strain most commonly occurs because of damage to the different forms of tissue around the shoulder. Stress on tendons and cartilage that help to hold the shoulder joint together can lead to a great deal of inflammation, which in turn leads to swelling that places pressure on the joint itself. When this happens, moving the shoulder results in a great deal of pain that may be difficult to bear.

Degenerative conditions such as arthritis and avascular necrosis can also be the origin of shoulder strain and pain. Over time, arthritis wears away cartilage and can even impact the strength of the bones in the shoulder joint. Inflammation sets in, making it very difficult to move the shoulder normally. Often, medication is required to bring the inflammation under control and help the individual to achieve at least some respite from the pain.

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With avascular necrosis, the blood supply to the bones of the shoulder is interrupted. This leads to the bones slowly starving and withering. As the bone dies, proper rotation of the shoulder becomes impossible without experiencing a great deal of pain. Often, surgery is the only answer for this condition, although the use of medication can be helpful if the disease is caught in its early stages.

Diagnosing the underlying reason for shoulder strain requires at least a physical examination. Often, the attending physician will also order tests like X-rays or magnetic resonance imaging, also known as an MRI. This can help identify if the cause for the pain is due to overexertion or if there is a developing health issue that must be addressed in order to alleviate the discomfort caused by the strain.

There are several elements that may be part of the treatment process for a shoulder strain. The use of anti-inflammatory drugs is fairly common. Depending on the reason for the strain, the application of heat and cold to the shoulder throughout the day may help with swelling and ease some of the pain. Physical therapy may also be necessary to help restore some range of motion and to help facilitate the healing of damaged tissue. Surgery is usually considered a last resort in most cases, with the presence of avascular necrosis being a notable exception.

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