Key Points about Shoulder Strains and Sprains

  • Shoulder strains and sprains can occur as a result of physical activities such as in sports, accidents involving impacts or the shoulder being crushed, repetitive motions, and overtaxing the joint with weight.
  • Surgery is sometimes required to strengthen and repair damage to the tendons, ligaments, and muscles supporting the joint.


Shoulder sprains and strains involve tearing or stretching the tendons, ligaments, muscles, and bones in the shoulder joint. A shoulder sprain is a tear of one or more of the ligaments connecting the bones of the shoulder joint. A strain involves tearing or stretching of a muscle or tendon that attaches to a bone. Strains and sprains are commonly classified into levels I, II, and II. Treatment will vary depending upon the severity of the strain or sprain.

A shoulder sprain can occur in several places around the joint. Most often, it occurs at the joint between the collarbone and the shoulder blade (acromioclavicular joint). This injury is commonly referred to as a shoulder separation. Less often, a sprain involves the joint between the breastbone and collarbone (sternoclavicular joint).

Shoulder strains and sprains causes

Causes of shoulder strains and sprains may include:

  • Injury while playing sports
  • Overloading the shoulder with heavy objects
  • Accidents involving slips and falls
  • Repetitive strain on the shoulder joint such as throwing, weightlifting, swimming, and motions required by certain occupations
  • Forceful impacts to the shoulder and chest such as in auto accidents

Shoulder strains and sprains risk factors

You may be at an increased risk of a shoulder sprain or strain if you:

  • Play certain sports
  • Engage in repetitive motions requiring the use of the shoulder joint
  • Are involved in an auto accident
  • Handle heavy objects

Shoulder strains and sprains symptoms

Symptoms common with both sprains and strains include:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Reduced joint mobility and flexibility

Symptoms specific to a sprain include bruising around the joint and hearing a “popping sound” at the time of injury.

Symptoms specific to strains are muscle spasms, weakness, and cramping.

Shoulder strains and sprains complications

Shoulder sprains and strains can lead to:

  • Poor shoulder function
  • Joint instability
  • The development of post-injury arthritis in the shoulder area
  • Continued pain and stiffness
  • In cases of surgical treatment, repeated surgery may be necessary due to improper healing
  • Inability to continue training or keep up an exercise routine

Shoulder strains and sprains prevention

To lower your risk of a shoulder strain or sprain:

  • Wear proper protective equipment during sports
  • Maintain strength and flexibility in muscles and joints

Shoulder strains and sprains diagnosis

Your doctor can diagnose shoulder strains and sprains by physical examination, knowledge of your shoulder injury history, and X-rays, and other diagnostic tools may be used to confirm the severity of the condition.

Shoulder strains and sprains treatment

Initial treatment includes rest, ice, and anti-inflammatory medications. Mild sprains and strains can be successfully self-treated. Your doctor or phyical therapist can provide a list of strengthening and flexibility exercises that will help you recovery quickly.

Severe sprains may require surgery to repair torn ligaments or reattach muscles and tendons.

When to seek care

Seek care if you experience swelling, bruising, severe pain, deformity, or any other symptoms listed above or if you have chronic symptoms that persist after conservative treatment.

Next Steps

Your doctor will assess your symptoms and provide treatment accordingly.

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