What are the Common Causes of Shoulder and Elbow Pain?

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  • Written By: Sandra Koehler
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 03 October 2019
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Shoulder and elbow pain can arise for many reasons, the most common being some sort of injury to the area. Since the shoulder is the most mobile joint in the body and is designed to work in conjunction with the arm and hand, experiencing pain in both the shoulder and the elbow simultaneously can occur. Common causes of pain in the shoulder and elbow can include shoulder impingement syndrome and nerve root irritation in the neck. Many times, this type of pain is considered referred pain.

A nerve is a pathway which conveys messages to the body, such as sensation and movement. There are several nerves which originate at the shoulder and travel down the arm and into the hand. Shoulder impingement syndrome is a condition caused by trauma or muscle tightness where the nerve is pinched or squeezed. This pressure can cause shoulder and elbow pain.

Nerve root irritation, especially in the cervical or neck area, is when the nerve root becomes irritated or pinched as it exits the spine. This can occur with an injury or disc herniation. A herniated disc is a condition where the disc in between the bones of the spine, which acts as a shock absorber, becomes ruptured and pushes out through the bones. When this occurs in the neck nerves, it can trigger shoulder and elbow pain.


Referred pain is a term used to describe symptoms which originate in one area but are felt in another. Pain originating from shoulder impingement syndrome and cervical nerve root irritation which causes pain that travels down the arm is termed referred pain. Referred pain can also occur with muscle tightness or spasms, however. Muscle spasms occur when a muscle involuntarily contracts or becomes tight. The most common causes of spasms in the muscle include stress, overuse, dehydration, and conditions such as diabetes, anemia, and atherosclerosis.

Muscle tightness can cause trigger points. Trigger points are small areas or knots within the muscle that are hypersensitive and painful. Applying pressure to these areas can produce pain which shoots or radiates to another area of the body. In other words, experiencing a trigger point in the shoulder can bring about pain in the shoulder area and into the arm, elbow, or hand.

Shoulder and elbow pain can be treated through the use of ice and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications. A temporary stoppage of the activity causing pain can also alleviate symptoms. If pain persists or if it arises from an injury or trauma, a physician may be able to determine the extent of the injury and recommend the proper treatment protocol to avoid further injury or complications.


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