Skip to main content

Osteoarthritis of the Shoulder

There are lots of different types of arthritis that can affect people. The following information will focus on osteoarthritis, which is the most common type of arthritis.

What is osteoarthritis of the shoulder?

Osteoarthritis in general is often misunderstood and as a result there are a lot of mistruths and myths about it.

In simple terms, it is best to consider osteoarthritis as the aging process of your joints. If you look in the mirror, you may find that you do not look like you did when you were 18 years old. You may have a few more wrinkles and a few more grey hairs than back then and these are generally accepted by most people as the outward signs of aging. Your joints undergo the same aging process and as a result you are exactly the same age on the inside as you are on the outside. Therefore, it isn’t realistic to expect your joints to look like they did when you were 18 either. Perhaps thinking about osteoarthritis as the normal grey hair and wrinkles of your shoulder joint may help you understand it better.


Why have I heard it described as ‘wear and tear’ then?

As with many other things, sometimes when certain words or phrases are used to describe something, they stick. Unfortunately, the term ‘wear and tear’ is used very regularly to describe osteoarthritis and it is not very helpful. Nothing in your shoulder is ‘worn’ or ‘torn’, therefore the phrase can be misleading as it suggests that osteoarthritis is damage to the shoulder.

Does it really matter what you call it?

We really think it does. Words are incredibly important as they help us understand what might be going on in our shoulder and what we are dealing with. If you have been told that you have osteoarthritis and that it's something you need to be concerned about, then it is only human to find yourself worrying about it. If things are explained correctly and words, phrases and images are used appropriately, you are likely to understand the issue better and be in a better frame of mind to do something about it. It is important to know this as what you think and how you feel about your shoulder can influence the chances of you getting better from it or not (Chester et al, 2018).

We have intentionally written this information to give you the right advice and guidance to see your way through to a better place with your shoulder

So, my shoulder isn’t damaged?

Osteoarthritis isn’t damage and therefore, using the word ‘damage’ to describe it is not accurate. Osteoarthritis describes the adaptive and useful changes in the way your joint looks and works in order for it to cope with the fact that it is getting older (not 18 years old anymore!).

What are the common symptoms with osteoarthritis of the shoulder?

This is a really important question and it is useful for you to know what is normal for a shoulder that may have osteoarthritis. We’ve broken the answer down into things that are found most commonly:

How is osteoarthritis diagnosed?

In most cases, osteoarthritis can be suspected or diagnosed through the clinical features (what it looks like and how it behaves), your symptoms (what you tell us about your shoulder) and the clinical assessment (testing the movements etc.). An X-ray of the shoulder is often used to help diagnose osteoarthritis but is not always required. 

Why are X-rays/scans not always required?

In a lot of cases, the information we as healthcare professionals can get from asking you questions and testing the shoulder is enough to make a decision. X-rays are a very useful tool as they show you what your shoulder looks like on the inside. However, in some cases what your shoulder looks like on the inside doesn’t really marry up with what your problem might be.

There is growing evidence (experiments and clinical studies) that demonstrate what you see is not always what you get with X-rays and scans and that a lot of the so-called ‘worn out’ or ‘abnormal’ findings are seen commonly in people with no pain, stiffness or symptoms.

Interestingly, in a clinical study (a type of experiment) Gonçalves Barreto et al. (2019) MRI scanned both shoulders of over 100 people who had shoulder pain in only one arm (in other words, they had both the ‘good’ arm and ‘bad’ arm scanned). They found almost exactly the same amount of ‘abnormalities’ on both the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sides. To simplify, they found things like osteoarthritis of the shoulder on both sides even though only one side hurt. This means that just because you can ‘see’ something on a scan, it doesn’t always mean that it is an actual problem or the source of your symptoms.

What causes osteoarthritis of the shoulder?

This is a difficult question and the simplest answer is that it is complicated. As we’ve explained in the last question, what you see is not always what you get and just because an X-ray/scan says you’ve got osteoarthritis of the shoulder, doesn’t mean you’ll actually have any problems.

There are many factors that will influence the development of osteoarthritis, including increased weight, low activity levels, previous injury, diet, genetics and negative beliefs. It is unlikely that just one of these factors will cause osteoarthritis, however, they may influence whether a person experiences symptoms or not.

What can I do to help myself?

Reassuringly, there are a number of things that you can do to help get your shoulder going and start your rehabilitation.

What can physiotherapy do for me?

Physiotherapy for shoulder complaints including osteoarthritis can be effective. We offer a range of options to help you manage your complaint with our rehabilitation classes forming the main part of what we can offer you.

Find out about our classes here: Classes


Is there anything I should look out for?

In most cases, shoulder symptoms associated with osteoarthritis are easily recognised, but occasionally there are things that do not fit and should be highlighted to either your doctor, nurse or physio.

  • Generally feeling unwell and/or a temperature alongside your shoulder pain
  • Considerably swollen and hot shoulder
  • If your shoulder issues have been since an injury such as a fall
  • High levels of pain/inability to sleep due to your pain levels
  • If you have your shoulder issues and have a history of cancer
  • If you have your shoulder issues and you have a history of osteoporosis or have taken steroids for a long time

Will it get better?

In a lot of cases, it is possible for you to improve the symptoms you have with your shoulder. Obviously, you cannot turn back the clock and the osteoarthritis will still be there even if you feel better, but by being stronger, fitter, more confident and closer to your ideal bodyweight, you can start to regain some more control over your shoulder.


What would a good outcome look like?

This is obviously very variable between people. For most, being able to regain all of the movement back in your shoulder (i.e. to get rid of all the stiffness) is often very difficult and does not tend to happen. However, you may find that rehabilitation can help control the symptoms of discomfort and help you to be able to use your shoulder more normally.


How long will it take before I feel something?

This is a very difficult question but it is best think about how much time and effort you are going to throw at the challenge and how confident and motivated you are to do something about it. If you work hard and are consistent with what you do, often people will notice signs of a positive response within weeks to months. If you are not committed to the challenge it will take longer or may not respond at all.

Frequently asked questions

Below are some of the common questions that are asked when talking about shoulder issues that haven’t been covered in the information above.


A: This doesn’t matter. Most, if not all, of the exercises below can be modified or adapted using heavy bags, bottles of water or even books.

A: Yes. As mentioned above, exercise is the best medicine for most things, including sore shoulders. Think of your shoulder as being strong and robust but irritated. It might be that starting exercise might cause a bit of irritation, but it will not damage your shoulder; it is safe to be sore.

A: Good question. For strengthening, it doesn’t matter too much as long as you work until your muscles can’t give you any more. In other words, you exercise until your muscles start to tire. It is worth noting your muscles will get sore as they tire, but this is ok and it often means you are pushing things as hard as you should.

Have a look at our exercise tips to help you get the best out of your chosen exercise/s.

A: Rest is not evil and can be very useful if you’ve ‘overdone’ it, but rest doesn’t change you for the better and rest will not change your shoulder for the better.

A: Firstly, ask yourself if you have really done everything you can to try and move your shoulder issue forwards. If the answer is no, consider re-reading the information above and seeking some guidance from your physio.

If you really have worked hard at the above advice and guidance, then some people do find benefit from steroid injections into the shoulder joint, but it is worthwhile remembering, steroids are drugs and there is always the possibility of side-effects and it not working. Injections should not be used to manage your shoulder pain long-term, as they are often only associated with short-term benefits (Gross et al, 2013). You can discuss this option with your GP.

If you still don’t find any benefit from your injection, then you may be referred to the hospital to have a discussion with the Bone and Joint teams about your options.

Exercise tips:

For the movement exercises, aim to try and complete these little and often throughout the day. Only move as far as you feel comfortable to move.

For the strengthening exercises, aim to complete the exercises (as many or as few as you want to) about 3 to 4 times a week.

Each exercise should be completed between 8-12 times (or repetitions) for 3 to 4 sets. Make sure you have about 1 minute's rest in between each set.

In order to change your muscles, you need to challenge them. In other words, you should really feel the effort with each set of exercises and should really not be able to do more than 12 each time around.

Strengthening Exercises



Chester, R., Jerosch-Herold, C., Lewis, J and Shepstone, L. (2018). Psychological factors are associated with the outcome of physiotherapy for people with shoulder pain: a multicentre longitudinal cohort study. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 52 (4) Accessed 05/05/2021.

Goncalves Barreto, R., Braman, J.P., Ludewig, P.M., Pechincha, R and Rezende Camargo, P. (2019). Bilateral magnetic resonance imaging findings in individuals with unilateral shoulder pain. Journal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery. 28(9):1699-1706. doi: 10.1016/j.jse.2019.04.001. Accessed 10/06/2021

Gross C, Dhawan A, Harwood D, Gochanour E and Romeo A. Glenohumeral joint injections: a review. Sports Health 2013; 5: 153–9.

Bricca A, Roos EM,  Juhl CB, Skou ST, Silva DO, Christian J & Barton CJ. (2019) Infographic. Therapeutic exercise relieves pain and does not harm knee cartilage nor trigger inflammation. BJSM. DOI: 10.1136/bjsports-2019-100727

Cookie Notice

Find out more about how this website uses cookies to enhance your browsing experience.