Osteoarthritis of the Shoulder 

What is Shoulder Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis, the most common type of arthritis, is caused primarily by age-related wear-and-tear that involves the deterioration of the smooth outer covering of bone, known as cartilage.

Shoulder osteoarthritis can occur when cartilage in the shoulder joint wears away, leaving less protection for the bones. When bones rub against one another, this can cause damage and result in pain around the shoulder joint.

How Common is Shoulder Arthritis?

Due to natural wear and tear that can take place within the shoulder joint with age, shoulder osteoarthritis commonly affects people over the age of 50 years old. Osteoarthritis of the shoulder affects 30 percent of people over the age of 60.

While shoulders are less susceptible to wear-and-tear compared to other weight-bearing joints, longer lifespans and an increase in sports participation have contributed to rising numbers of shoulder problems earlier in life.   

What Causes Shoulder Osteoarthritis?

Shoulder osteoarthritis is caused by a combination of biological and behavioral factors that include:

  • Repetitive stresses: People whose jobs require repeated lifting or pushing, such as activities performed during manual labor, subject their shoulders to stresses that can accelerate the development of osteoarthritis.
  • Athletic participation: Athletes who engage in repetitive activities that require a lot of shoulder movement are more susceptible to cartilage loss. They are also more likely to injure their shoulder, which can lead to post-traumatic arthritis, a type of osteoarthritis caused by injury rather than aging.
  • Gender: Shoulder osteoarthritis is more common in women than men.

What are Shoulder Osteoarthritis Risk Factors?

The following risks factors may predispose certain individuals to shoulder osteoarthritis.

  • Advanced Age: Natural wear-and-tear can make cartilage within the joint thinner and less flexible.
  • Trauma to the joint: Symptoms of osteoarthritis may appear years after a trauma to the shoulder joint (e.g., a broken bone or dislocation).
  • Congenital defect or illness: Congenital conditions, metabolic disorders, and episodes of gout or septic arthritis can increase risk. Improper bone alignment can also increase the risk for shoulder dislocations.
  • Genetics: Hereditary factors determine the toughness and durability of cartilage, as well as how it attaches to bone. A person with weaker cartilage is more likely to develop osteoarthritis.

What are Symptoms of Shoulder Osteoarthritis?

 The following are common symptoms of shoulder osteoarthritis symptoms.

  • Pain with activity
  • Limitations in range of motion
  • Stiffness
  • Swelling
  • Tenderness
  • Grinding or crunching sensation  

How is Shoulder Osteoarthritis Diagnosed?

The diagnosis of shoulder osteoarthritis begins with a physical examination and x-rays. During the physical exam, your physician will examine your shoulder for swelling, range of motion, muscle strength, and tenderness. The exam also includes questions about personal and family medical history.   

X-rays are used to look for a narrowing joint space and damage related to the bones in the shoulder joint, as well as for the formation of bone spurs, which indicate arthritis. An MRI may also be needed to gauge the condition of the rotator cuff.  Other diagnostic tests may be used to rule out causes of joint pain. Blood tests and analysis of joint fluid can rule out rheumatoid arthritis or infection.

How is Shoulder Osteoarthritis Treated?

Shoulder osteoarthritis is highly treatable. Depending on the severity of the diagnosis, non-surgical or surgical treatment options may be recommended.

Nonsurgical Treatments of Shoulder Osteoarthritis

The following non-surgical interventions can help preserve the health of your shoulder. 

  • Activity modification
  • Periodic rest
  • Cold compresses
  • Physical therapy
  • Anti-inflammatory medications (aspirin or ibuprofen)
  • Steroid injections

Surgical Treatment Options of Shoulder Osteoarthritis

If non-surgical treatments don’t relieve symptoms, the following surgical options may be recommended.   

  • Full or partial shoulder replacement (arthroplasty): Removing parts of the bones and creating an artificial joint with metal or plastic components.
  • Arthroscopy: Involves smaller incisions and uses tiny cameras and small instruments to repair defects in the shoulder that are contributing to wear-and-tear.
  • Osteotomy: Realigning bones of the arm to take pressure off the joint.
  • Joint fusion: Removing worn cartilage and fusing the bones on each side of the joint together.
  • Joint reconstruction: Removing the worn joint surface and replacing it with your own soft tissue or with an implant.
Man holding his shoulder image

Osteoarthritis of the Shoulder: Diagnosis and Treatment

Shoulders are less susceptible to wear-and-tear compared to other weight-bearing joints, but longer lifespans and an increase in sports participation have contributed to rising numbers of shoulder problems earlier in life.

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Expert Osteoarthritis Care at Brigham and Women’s Hospital

Our world-renowned Brigham and Women’s Hospital Orthopaedic & Arthritis Center team is dedicated to providing the most advanced care for all bone and joint conditions to reduce pain, increase mobility and improve quality of life for our patients.

Our specialists in orthopaedic surgery, physiatry, rheumatology and rehabilitation, work together with dedicated nurses, physician assistants and other professionals, to provide state-of-the-art evaluation and treatment for thousands of patients each year.  When it’s time to consider shoulder replacement surgery, our expert team will work with you to determine the best surgical approach for you.

Schedule an Appointment

To schedule an appointment with one of our bone and joint specialists, please call 1-800-294-9999 or fill out an online appointment request form.   

Refer a Patient

If you would like to refer a patient with shoulder osteoarthritis, please call 1-800-MD-TO-BWH (1-800-638-6294) or see our list of referral options.

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