Shoulder pain is a common condition that often results in concern and uncertainty for a patient. It affects people in all walks of life, from athletes and laborers to those leading a relatively sedentary lifestyle.

Ignoring or living with the symptoms of shoulder pain is often the first response of the patient. However, shoulder pain that is severe and unremitting could indicate a serious problem that may worsen over time.

Often a medical diagnosis of a shoulder condition can be made based on the patient’s history. Physicians are trained to identify the “red flags” that could indicate a more serious condition. These include constant pain, rest or night pain, weakness and excessive popping or clicking. Also, catching or locking of a moving joint usually indicates a problem.

There are many potential causes for shoulder pain and visiting an orthopedic surgeon to obtain an accurate diagnosis is important to ensure a safe and timely recovery. An accurate diagnosis can also help focus treatment to optimize outcomes and functions.

Often shoulder pain results from sports activities with an improper warm-up or athletic technique. Sometimes it’s caused by chronic conditions like repetitive activity or overuse. In fact, even constant everyday activities can lead to shoulder problems. Shoulder pain also can result from trauma, such as a fall onto a shoulder or an outstretched arm. Twisting of an arm and shoulder can also lead to problems.

The treatment of shoulder pain depends on the severity and the nature of the injury. Sometimes a period of rest or activity modification will help. Ice and heat applications may be appropriate, as well. This is how overuse syndromes, sprains and strains are often treated.

Other minor injuries respond to active stretching of the muscles and tendons that surround the joint. Some shoulder conditions respond to treatment with physical therapy, especially when a stretching and strengthening program is performed.

Shoulder pain caused by arthritis, bursitis and tendinitis is often treated with anti-inflammatory medications or cortisone injections.

Whenever possible, conservative measures are preferred to surgery. However, when rest, medication, injections and physical therapy fail, maybe the next course of treatment is surgery. When surgery is the final option, the physician will explain in detail what to expect and what he or she hopes to achieve.

Surgical options are based on the underlying cause of the shoulder pain. For example, if bone spurs are prominent and pinch or catch tissue, these spurs can be removed. If certain structures like rotator cuff tendons are torn, they can be surgically repaired.

It’s not advisable to ignore these aches and pains for too long. A visit to an orthopedic surgeon can pinpoint the problem, alleviate pain and keep you healthy.

Dr. Brian W. Fukushima is an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine.