Shoulder Bursitis

What is Shoulder Bursitis?

Bursitis, considered as the most common cause of shoulder pain, is the inflammation of the bursa, a flattened and fibrous sac-like structure that surrounds the shoulder joint. The bursa mainly functions as a cushion or a shock absorber between a bone and a tendon.

These sacs provide a lubricating surface that prevents the rubbing of these structures during arm movements, minimizing the occurrence of trauma or degeneration of the shoulder joints.


Shoulder bursitis is caused be repetitive shoulder use, trauma, infection or an underlying medical condition, such as a systemic inflammatory disease. Commonly, bursitis of the shoulder results from injuries of the rotator cuff, a group of muscles and tendons that stabilize the shoulder, caused by falls, heavy lifting or repetitive overhead arm motions.

Normally, a bursa sac contains a thin film of synovial fluid that allows smooth movements during muscle contractions with minimal friction. On an excessive shoulder activity without adequate rest, the bursa heats up and the synovial fluid thickens.

This results in swelling of the bursae, which makes movements of shoulder joint painful and stiff.

Signs and Symptoms

Shoulder pain is the most common symptom of shoulder bursitis. A dull ache or joint stiffness is usually felt on activities where the arms motion above the head, worsening with movement or pressure.

The pain is also frequently felt during sleep. The affected area commonly feels warm to touch with occasional skin redness.


Bursitis of the shoulder is diagnosed by your physician through physical examination and a detailed medical history, mostly focusing on your usual activities.

An X-ray is done to rule out any underlying medical condition that is causing the pain.  Additional screening tests, such as blood tests and synovial fluid analyses, could be indicated.


The initial treatment of shoulder bursitis is rest, most especially if it is caused by repetitive use, to decrease the inflammation. Your physician might give you a list of activities that you need to avoid to prevent the pain from occurring.

Overhead weight lifting, throwing motions and arm movements over and behind your head are some activities that you need to exclude from your daily activities.

Your physician might also prescribe you with oral non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDS to reduce the joint inflammation. Once the pain and stiffness subside, some simple exercises that encourage joint and rotator cuff strengthening and flexibility are indicated.

A regular session with a physical therapist might also be prescribed to prevent the recurrence of the pain.

If the pain does not respond to any of these regimens, a cortisone injection into the inflamed area is usually indicated. The steroid shot decreases the inflammation and the pain. However, this drug therapy has a downside.

Repeated administration of steroids could weaken the tendons, which could result in worsening of the symptoms. Thus, it is important to reconsider this treatment option before initiating the therapy.

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