Shoulder Tendinopathy

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The tendons connect muscle to bone and often connect near a joint. Shoulder tendinopathy is an injury to the shoulder tendons. It can cause pain and swelling and makes it difficult to move. Tendinopathy may be:

  • Tendonitis — inflammation of the tendon. (less common)
  • Tendinosis — tiny tears in the tendon with no significant inflammation. (more common)

There are several tendons in the shoulder. They are attached to muscles of the rotator cuff and the bicep muscle of the arm.

diagram of tendons and bones in the shoulder
Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Causes of Shoulder Tendinopathy

Tendinopathy is generally caused by overuse of a muscle and tendon. Over time, the strain on the tendon causes the structure of the tendon to change.

Shoulder tendons are overused most often with:

  • Repeated reaching overhead
  • Repeated throwing

Shoulder tendinopathy may also be caused by:

  • Inflammation disease in the shoulder such as arthritis
  • Trauma to the shoulder or fall on outstretched arms.
  • Normal wear and tear associated with age.

Risks of Developing Shoulder Tendinopathy

Factors that increase your chance of developing shoulder tendinopathy include:

  • Age: 30 and over
  • Always using the arm in an overhead position or throwing motion, as in:
    • Tennis or other racquet sports
    • Swimming
    • Baseball
    • Jobs (eg, overhead assembly work, butchering, or using an overhead pressing machine)

Shoulder Tendinopathy Symptoms

Symptoms develop gradually over time. Pain usually slowly increases with use.

Tendinopathy may cause:

  • Pain (a dull ache) in the shoulder and upper arm
  • Pain at night, especially when sleeping on the injured side
  • Pain when trying to reach for a back zipper or pocket
  • Pain with overhead use of the arm
  • Shoulder weakness, usually due to pain with effort
  • Shoulder stiffness with some loss of motion

Diagnosing Shoulder Tendinopathy

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Your doctor will check tender areas. Your shoulder range of motion, and muscle strength will also be checked.

Your doctor may need to get detailed images of your shoulder. This may be done if the injury is severe or to rule out other problems. Images can be taken with:

  • MRI scan
  • Arthroscopy —a surgery that is done with a scope
  • X-rays
  • CT arthrography—specialized X-ray

Bursitis can cause similar pain symptoms. Your doctor may inject an anesthetic medication. If the pain goes away it may suggest bursitis not tendinopathy.

Treating Tendinopathy in the Shoulder

Tendinopathy and the associated pain may take months to resolve. It can be frustrating but it is important to follow through with recommended treatment. Treatments include:

Rest, Ice, Heat

Avoid activities that cause shoulder pain.

Use ice or an ice pack to help control pain and swelling. It may help during the first 24-48 hours after injury or after exercise. Protect your skin by placing a towel between the ice and your skin.

After a few days, heat may help decrease stiffness. Check with a doctor or therapist before using heat the first time. Protect your skin by placing a towel between the heat source and your skin.


The doctor may recommend medication to help reduce swelling and pain. Medication options include:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to manage pain (e.g., aspirin or ibuprofen)
  • Topical pain medicines (eg, cream, patches) that are applied to the skin
  • Steroid injection into the bursa overlying the rotator cuff to decrease inflammation

Persistent or severe pain may need further treatment. Your doctor may inject a steroid into the area. It can temporarily relieve pain. However, frequent injections can damage the tendon.


Rehabilitation will help you regain strength and range of motion in your shoulder. It will also help you prevent future injuries. Rehabilitation may include:

  • Physical therapy to strengthen muscles that control the shoulder
  • Exercises to maintain normal range of motion
  • Exercises for specific muscles that are used in sports or job activities
  • Gradual return to sports and work
  • Learning how to modify activities to prevent re-injury


Severe injuries may require surgery to repair the tendon. The type of surgery will depend on the specific injuries.

Preventing Shoulder Tendinopathy

To protect the shoulder from injury:

  • Do regular resistance exercises to strengthen the muscles.
  • Use proper athletic training methods.
  • Do not increase exercise duration or intensity more than 10% per week.
  • Avoid overusing your arm in an overhead position.
  • Alter job duties to avoid overhead activity.
  • Do not ignore or try to work through shoulder pain.


Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.