Neck and shoulder pain

Neck and shoulder pain - how to relieve neck and shoulder pain

Neck and shoulder pain is relatively common and usually comes from sports-related sprains and strains, overexertion or poor posture. Depending on the cause, the pain may go away on its own or with the help of stretching and strengthening exercises and other pain-relieving treatments that you can do at home. In some cases, neck and shoulder pain can be a sign of more serious medical conditions that require immediate help. Always contact your GP if you are uncertain of where your pain is coming from.

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Neck and shoulder pain indicating a medical emergency

Neck and shoulder pain can sometimes be a sign of a serious medical emergency, such as a stroke or heart attack. Call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room if you are experiencing sudden pain in the neck, back, or jaw, that has come on without trauma, if neck pain is accompanied by numbness or loss of strength in your arms or hands, or if you have shooting pain into your shoulder or down your arm.

What is shoulder pain?

The shoulder joint is one of the major joints in the body. It is also one of the most movable joints in humans, thanks to a group of muscles and tendons called the rotator cuff. The rotator cuff stabilizes the shoulder joint to give the shoulder it’s wide range of motion. 

Pain that is felt in the shoulder area can be a sign of trauma or inflammation in the shoulder joint itself or can come from one of the many muscles, ligaments and tendons in surrounding areas. Additionally, a number of other diseases and conditions stemming from the chest or abdomen can also cause what is called “referred pain” in the shoulders. Such illnesses include heart and lung conditions, cancer and gallbladder disease. 

Pain that comes from the joint itself usually feels worse or different when you use your shoulder while playing sports or while doing everyday things like picking something up or getting dressed. Pain that is constant and can’t be changed or lessened by moving your shoulder is less likely to come from the joint.

Causes of shoulder pain

Shoulder pain is most often caused by injury to the rotator cuff. When weakened by age and wear and tear, the rotator cuff becomes more susceptible to damage and can be injured.

Beside rotator cuff tendonitis or bursitis, shoulder pain can be caused by several other injuries and conditions including:

  • Rotator cuff tears
  • Frozen shoulder
  • Arthritis in the shoulder joint
  • Bone spurs in the shoulder area
  • A fractured shoulder bone
  • Dislocation of the shoulder
  • Shoulder separation
  • Issues with nearby tendons such as overuse or injury
  • Calcific tendonitis
  • Spinal issues
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Shoulder blade pain and pain between the shoulder blades

Shoulder blade pain can come either from trauma or inflammation to the shoulder area itself, or from so-called referred pain from other parts of the upper body such as the chest and abdomen. This also means that pain in the shoulder blades can be a sign of something quite mild such as a muscle strain, or something much more serious like a heart or lung condition or cancer. But the most common cause is muscle strain which can come from overuse (for example from playing tennis) or from simply sleeping in an awkward position.

Pain between the shoulder blades, or “interscapular pain” is common and can feel like anything from a dull ache to a shooting pain. The most common cause of pain between the shoulder blades is muscle strain from poor posture, overuse such as from excess lifting or activities like golf or tennis, or a less than supportive mattress. Another common cause of interscapular pain is trauma such as a rotator cuff tear or joint separation.

Left shoulder pain and right shoulder pain

Left shoulder pain can be due to heart or blood vessel issues such as a heart attack or pericarditis (inflammation around the heart). Call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room if you feel pain in your left shoulder. 

Right shoulder pain is usually due to muscle or tendon damage. However, although arm and shoulder pain on the left side is more often associated with heart attacks, a heart attack can also present as pain on the right side of the body, in the arm or shoulder.

Neck pain - causes and symptoms of neck pain

Neck pain is a common complaint. Symptoms of neck pain include:

  • Headaches
  • Muscle tightness and spasms
  • Decreased range of motion
  • Pain that is worsened by holding your head in one position for extended periods of time, such as when working at a computer or driving a car

Common causes of neck pain include:

  • Injuries, such as whiplash
  • Muscle strains, such as from overuse or awkward posture
  • Compressed nerves
  • Worn joints, caused by age and wear and tear
  • Disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis, meningitis and cancer

Back of neck pain - could I have cervicogenic headaches?

Pain in the back of the neck that is accompanied by headaches may be a sign of cervicogenic headaches. Cervicogenic headaches can result from strain to the muscles and tendons in your neck caused by poor posture, overexertion or injury. This in turn puts pressure on your spine and the nerves running through it and directly into your brain, causing the headache.

Chronic neck pain

Neck pain is typically classified as chronic when it persists or regularly recurs for at least three months. The pain itself can range from fairly mild pain to a sharp debilitating pain.

Pillows for neck pain

If you suffer from chronic neck pain, it can be hard to get a good night’s sleep. A good supportive pillow, such as a cervical pillow, can do a lot to ease chronic pain.

Concurrent neck and shoulder pain

Concurrent neck and shoulder pain is pain that you feel in your neck and shoulders at the same time. Because of the close connection between the neck and shoulders through multiple nerve pathways, it’s not always clear if the pain you feel is actually coming from your neck or from your shoulders.

Shoulder and neck pain relief - how to ease pain at home

While you should always seek professional medical attention for any pain that doesn’t go away on its own, there is a lot you can do to relieve mild neck and shoulder pain at home.

  • Rest - take a break from any activities that might make your pain worse, such as some sports
  • Apply cold - use an ice pad wrapped in a towel for up to 20 minutes, five times a day to reduce swelling
  • Apply heat - use a heating pad or warm compress to alleviate pain
  • Massage - gently massage your neck and shoulders
  • Medical pain relief - use an OTC pain reliever or topical pain-relieving cream as recommended by your doctor or pharmacist
  • Wrap it - wear a shoulder wrap to reduce swelling and relieve pain
  • Stay as active as you can but move your shoulder gently - an OTC pain reliever can make gentle activity less uncomfortable
  • Try shoulder exercises to relieve pain and prevent it from coming back
  • Exercise your neck gently every day by slowly stretching your head from side-to-side and up-and-down
  • Think about your posture - stand up straight and relax your shoulders, rolling them gently down and back, and change your position often to ease neck pain
  • Use a cushion to support your lower back and rest your arm on a cushion in your lap to rest your shoulder, and use a special neck pillow for sleeping to ease neck pain
  • Don’t use neck braces or collars without your doctor’s advice as they can make symptoms worse if used incorrectly

Neck pain usually disappears more quickly, but shoulder pain can take a long time to recover from, so don’t be surprised if you need to keep at it for up to two weeks before the pain starts to lessen.

In your digital pain coach app Paindrainer, you’ll get access to rehabilitation exercises designed by chronic pain management experts specifically tailored for home use, to help you manage and alleviate pain in your neck and shoulder.

When to see a doctor

Seek medical help immediately if you think you might be having a medical emergency such as a stroke or heart attack.

You should also plan to see a doctor if:

  • You have shoulder pain that persists for several days
  • Your pain doesn’t go away, gets worse, or comes back after initially going away
  • Your range of motion feels limited
  • You are in significant pain
  • You think you might have a muscle or tendon tear

Managing neck and shoulder pain

If you are experiencing neck and shoulder pain, see your doctor to discuss your symptoms and make a treatment plan. New advancements in chronic pain management can also help you to optimize how you live with chronic pain while maintaining an active lifestyle.


Shoulder pain

Shoulder pain

Shoulder pain and common shoulder problems

Why does my shoulder hurt?

Shoulder pain

What causes concurrent neck and shoulder pain and how do I treat it?

Is your shoulder pain actually caused by a neck problem?

Causes of right shoulder and arm pain

What causes pain between the shoulder blades?

Neck pain: possible causes and how to treat it

Shoulder pain without injury

How back of neck pain is related to your headaches

12 Pillows for neck pain

Paindrainer is proven to help you manage your pain

Data for individuals with chronic back and neck pain using Paindrainer for 12 weeks.

Improved physical function*
Decreased pain intensity*
Decreased pain interference*
Increased daily capacity to work*

*Barreveld A.M.,et al,. Pain Med. (2023) Apr 27

User reviews

Many satisfied users benefit in understanding their pain and managing their daily lives

"By using Paindrainer, I've gained an understanding of what negatively affects my pain and what I need to do to take care of myself.

I've realized how important it is to sleep well, do things I enjoy, and incorporate rest into my daily life. It makes me feel better. Mentally, it's positive because I notice that days vary, and it gives me hope when the pain is at its worst.

Paindrainer is easy to use and has become like a friend I carry in my pocket, reminding me to be kind to myself."

- Maria

"Paindrainer has truly helped me create a more balanced daily routine and make conscious decisions to prioritize what is valuable for me and improve my well-being.

After just a week of using Paindrainer, I received recommendation to prioritize more sleep. Now, I've increased my sleep from 6 to 7 hours per night, which has really benefited me. In addition to sleep, Paindrainer made me aware that longer workout sessions were increasing my pain. As a result, I've adjusted my training to shorter sessions of no more than 20 minutes and added an extra training day per week instead, which suits me much better.

- Cecilia