How osteoarthritis affects the shoulder

African American grabbing his shoulder

Our shoulders are the most flexible joints in the body and can move in just about every direction, so when a routine movement like trying to put on a shirt or comb your hair starts to become painful and difficult, you want answers.

One explanation may be osteoarthritis, a common cause of shoulder pain.

What is osteoarthritis? 

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, most commonly affecting joints in the shoulder, hands, knees and hip. It usually shows up after age 50.

You develop this condition when your cartilage, which lines the ends of bones and provides a smooth surface for movement, wears down over time. Your joints can feel: 

  • Painful and stiff
  • Swollen and look red
  • Warm to the touch

When your body attempts to repair the bone damage, it can create bony projections called bone spurs. These also cause inflammation, pain, stiffness and can agitate tendons, making them more susceptible to tears.

“Our shoulders can ache due to an injury, of course, but also because of wear and tear over the years,” says Paul B. McLendon, M.D.. “That’s when it’s challenging for patients to know when to come in and seek help.”

A good rule of thumb is to make an appointment to see your doctor if joint pain lasts more than a week or if you have several episodes a month over the span of a year. 

Nonsurgical treatment for shoulder osteoarthritis to try first

“Our first goal will be to treat your condition without surgery,” Dr. McLendon says. “We have a lot of options to try before we start to discuss surgery.” 

Your doctor may recommend: 

  • Corticosteroid injections to reduce inflammation
  • Heat or ice (or a combination)
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications, such as naproxen or ibuprofen, to reduce inflammation and pain
  • Physical therapy to help preserve range of motion 
  • Resting from activities that cause the pain 

If these remedies don’t resolve chronic shoulder pain from osteoarthritis, your doctor may recommend surgery.

Shoulder surgery may be the answer

Orthopedic surgeons can perform several different types of surgical techniques to repair shoulders. The best option for you may depend on how much damage your shoulder has sustained.

Here are some techniques used for shoulder surgery: 

  • Anatomic shoulder replacement – Shoulder replacement surgery is the only way to truly eliminate arthritis. A prosthetic ball may replace the top of the humerus (upper arm bone) and a new socket may replace the damaged bone in the part of the shoulder blade. One or both parts may be replaced (partial or total shoulder replacement).
  • Reverse shoulder replacement – Some patients may have better results with a reverse shoulder replacement. In this procedure, the surgeon fits the top of the humerus with a socket and the shoulder’s normal socket with a ball. If a patient has a damaged rotator cuff, this may be the best choice. 

Turn to our Orthopedic & Sports Medicine Specialists in several locations for more advice on shoulder osteoarthritis. 

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