When to Go to the ER for Shoulder Pain

When to Go to the ER

May 1, 2024


Most people experience shoulder pain from overusing the joints or accidents. Because shoulder pain is so common, knowing when to go to the ER for shoulder pain can be challenging. It often depends on how severe the pain is and knowing the cause of your shoulder pain.

Immediate signs that you should head to the ER for shoulder pain include:

  • Severe pain that is sudden and intense
  • Pain that prevents you from moving your shoulder or arm
  • Pain that radiates down the arm or up to the neck or jaw
  • Not being able to lift objects, especially ones you could usually handle without issue
  • Swelling, tenderness, bruising, or deformity

The medical team at Complete Care is here to help you make smart choices about your health and safety when dealing with shoulder pain. We’ll list out scenarios where your shoulder pain will require medical attention. 

How can I tell if shoulder pain is serious?

Figuring out how serious shoulder pain is depends on a few things: when the pain started, its location, intensity, and if other symptoms accompany it. Here are some red flags to watch out for:

1. Severe pain that is sudden and intense

Severe and sudden shoulder pain can be signs of a serious condition, such as an acute injury or even a heart attack. If your pain is exceptionally sharp and emerges without any discernible cause, seeking immediate medical attention is crucial. 

This type of pain might also be accompanied by other distressing symptoms, such as: 

Additionally, if the pain occurs immediately following an injury or a fall, it could signify a broken bone, dislocation, or a significant tear in the shoulder’s muscles or ligaments.

Continue reading: What does a torn muscle feel like in the shoulder?

2. Pain that prevents you from moving your shoulder or arm

If you can’t move your shoulder or arm much, or at all, it could be a serious problem like a frozen shoulder, a bad rotator cuff injury, or a broken bone. If you feel throbbing shoulder pain with even simple movements, it’s important to see a doctor right away. Ignoring these symptoms can lead to prolonged recovery times and potentially permanent loss of mobility.

Key symptoms include:

  • Not being able to raise the arm to the side or in front of the body
  • Severe pain when attempting to move the arm or while at rest
  • Noticeable swelling or deformity around the shoulder joint

Getting medical help early can stop more damage and make sure you get the right treatment, which helps you heal faster.

3. Pain that radiates down the arm or up to the neck or jaw

If you feel pain spreading down your arm or up to your neck or jaw, it might not just be a shoulder problem; it could mean nerve damage or heart issues. This kind of pain needs prompt medical attention because it could be conditions like cervical radiculopathy, where a nerve in your neck is compressed, or even a heart attack, especially if you’re also dizzy, sweating, or nauseous.

Symptoms to watch out for include:

  • Pain that starts in the shoulder and travels down the arm or up toward the neck and jaw (read more about left-side body pain from shoulder to toe)
  • Numbness or tingling sensations along the arm, neck, or jawline
  • Sudden onset of these symptoms without a clear cause

If you experience these symptoms, seek medical help right away to rule out life-threatening conditions. Early diagnosis and treatment can be crucial in preventing long-term damage and ensuring a swift recovery.

4. Not being able to lift objects easily

An inability to lift objects, particularly those previously manageable without difficulty, is a potential indicator of significant weakness or injury within the shoulder complex. This symptom may arise from various conditions, including rotator cuff injuries, tendonitis, or even arthritis. The rotator cuff, which stabilizes the shoulder and allows a wide range of motion, can experience wear or tear that diminishes strength and functionality. This is common for those who play sports and may have suffered a soccer injury or basketball injury.

Symptoms to look out for include:

  • A sudden or gradual decrease in the ability to lift objects
  • Pain or discomfort when attempting to lift or carry items
  • Weakness in the arm when extending or rotating the shoulder

Addressing this symptom promptly by consulting with a healthcare professional who can offer a shoulder injury diagnosis can aid in identifying the underlying cause and determining the most effective treatment plan. 

Rehabilitation exercises, physical therapy, or, in some cases, surgery may be recommended to restore strength and functionality to the shoulder so that you can return to normal activities without any pain or limitations.

5. Swelling, tenderness, bruising, or deformity

Swelling, tenderness, bruising, or deformity in any part of the body are signs that an injury or accident occurred. For example, bruises or cuts may appear if you have a shoulder injury from falling.

These symptoms may signify a fracture, dislocation, or soft tissue damage such as a sprain or strain. Visible deformities can suggest more severe underlying issues that could worsen without proper treatment.

Key signs to watch for include:

  • Swelling or puffiness in the affected area
  • Tenderness to touch or pressure
  • Unusual bruising patterns indicating internal bleeding or damage
  • Any visible deformity or misalignment of bones and joints

Immediate consultation with a healthcare provider is essential for a proper assessment. A shoulder injury diagnosis may include examinations, X-rays, or MRIs to determine how severe your shoulder pain is. Pain from different types of shoulder injuries from falling can vary in severity. From there, your physician will make a treatment plan.

Treatment options may include:

  • A sling or brace
  • Medication for pain and inflammation 
  • Rehabilitation exercises
  • Surgery (in severe cases)

Following treatment recommendations and adhering to any prescribed rehabilitation plans can help facilitate a full recovery and prevent future complications.

Explore your path to shoulder pain recovery at a Complete Care freestanding ER

Intense shoulder pain accompanied by symptoms such as swelling, tenderness, bruising, or deformity necessitates immediate medical attention. When faced with these signs, it’s essential to know when to go to the ER for shoulder pain to seek the proper care. 

At Complete Care’s freestanding ER, we are committed to offering prompt, thorough care tailored to each patient’s needs, allowing for effective treatment without the extensive wait times often associated with traditional emergency rooms. Our experienced medical team is ready to deliver expert care, ensuring the best possible outcomes for your shoulder pain and related symptoms.

With locations throughout Texas (Austin, Corpus Christi, Dallas/Fort Worth, East Texas, Lubbock, and San Antonio) and in Colorado Springs, we offer 24/7 access to quality emergency medical care, including specialized treatment for shoulder injuries including muscle sprains, dislocations, fractures, and left shoulder pain in winter.

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