Burning shoulder pain can be mildly to very uncomfortable, and can be even downright unpleasant.
It may come and go, or persist there consistently. Sometimes, it may affect just a very specific area in the shoulder, or it may affect a larger area. Sometimes, the burning shoulder pain may "travel" (ie radiate) downwards into the arm or it may travel upwards to the back or neck.
And most patients report that it bothers and disrupts their sleep.
Like the symptoms, burning shoulder pain can have variable causes as well. It can be caused by
In this article, we will explore at the most common causes of burning pain in the shoulder and the common symptoms of each and every one of the conditions as well as the typical age groups affected.
This will help you identify which one is most likely to be the cause including how to tell whether you have a shoulder problem or if you actually have a neck issue that's causing your shoulder pain.
So how can you tell if your burning shoulder pain is due to a shoulder problem or a neck problem?
Here is a simple guide to help:
As most typical cases of burning pain in the shoulder tends to be caused by neck issues, let's start by exploring neck or neck-related issues, and then only go on to look at possible shoulder problems or other medical conditions that can bring on or aggravate burning shoulder pain.
Often, burning pain in the shoulder is actually caused by a problem in the neck or surrounding nerves.
Even if patients hadn’t noticed any pain or stiffness in the neck itself, it may be what is called “referred or radiating pain”, meaning that the pain is felt in a different location compared to the real source of the problem.
(This often happens in trigger points.)
So our human neck is comprised of seven bones (our spine bones is called vertebra bones, or vertebral bones), which "sit" on top of each other like a curved pillar - imagine a totem or a stack of cotton reels.
And located between each vertebral bones are cushion-like and flexible ring shaped structures known as spinal or intervertebral discs (ie disc between the vertebral bones), which in turn is comprised of
And then starting at the top of our neck, just below the bottom of the brain, and all the way down the back of the spine, there is a long continuous spinal canal (medically termed as the spinal cord).
At every spinal level, there will be a pair of nerves (medically termed as nerve roots) that divide off the spinal cord and branch as long long nerve cable which extend down the arms and legs (minor cables offshooting from the major central connecting cables).
Our brain sends instructions up and down these nerve cables (medically termed as the peripheral nervous system) in form of electrical impulses, and the central nervous system sends out instructions to the peripheral nervous system to control movement eg where to go, in which direction, in which plane/angle and what muscles to activate not activate etc.
It also takes in an interprets inbound/incoming sensory signals from the peripheral nervous system eg
If any part of the nerve is compressed, compromised or irritated, for whatever reason, it can lead to abnormal sensations anywhere along the path of the nerve.
One of the common symptom of nerve irritation is burning shoulder pain, but there may also be
These abnormal sensations may be felt anywhere along the path of the nerve, known as referred pain or radiculopathy.
Burning shoulder pain is typically due to nerve irritation from one of the following:
1) Disc Disease
Pressure on the nerve root due to problems in the disc is a common cause of burning pain in the shoulder.
It can be caused by:
1) Disc Bulge
When the central gel-like portion of the disc (the nucleus) protrudes out placing pressure on the nerve root
A tear develops in the discs outer layer (the annulus) allowing the inner jam-like nucleus to leak out, collecting around and irritating the nerve root – imagine pressing and squeezing a jam donut until the jam bursts outwards.
As we grow older, our spinal discs dehydrate and shrink, becoming
It doesn't work as well as before and now provides
...any of which can lead to pressure on the nerve root unfortunately.
Burning shoulder pain that is due to disc disease in the neck usually:
Spinal stenosis is another possible cause of burning shoulder pain.
Spinal stenosis refers to abnormal narrowing of the spinal canal (the gap in the spine for the spinal cord) which places increased pressure on the spinal cord and nerve roots.
Symptoms usually start to appear when the spinal canal space has decreased by around 30%.
Decrease space at the side of the canal affects the nerve root, but if it's moreso central narrowing, that instead affects the spinal cord. Burning shoulder pain due to spinal stenosis usually:
3) Brachial Neuritis
Brachial neuritis causes both motor weakness and sensory issues. Patients often report experiening a sharp, burning pain in the shoulder, shoulder blade, arm and hand.
Brachial neuritis is caused by inflammation of the brachial plexus, which is a bundle collection of nerves that travel from the lower neck, across the front of the chest, to the arm pit.
It can be caused by
Burning shoulder pain from brachial neuritis typically:
Treatment usually involves a combination of strong painkillers, physical therapy and exercises.
4) Neck Arthritis Aka Cervical Spondylosis
Cervical (neck) arthritis is another possible cause of burning pain in the shoulder which is caused and aggravated by common wear and tear of the neck bones and discs.
What happens is then our spinal (intervertebral) discs start to dry and shrink, become weaker and lose height, and the smooth surface on the bones gradually wears away and bone spurs form, narrowing the space around the vertebrae which can place pressure on the surrounding nerves.
Neck arthritis is extremely common affecting around 80% of people over the age of 60, but fortunately many of those don’t experience any noticeable symptoms.
Cervical spondylosis typically presents with the following picture:
Most cases of cervical spondylosis respond well to medication and physical therapy.
Whilst most cases of burning shoulder pain come from the neck, it may also be a problem in the shoulder itself.
The two most common shoulder problems that cause burning pain in the shoulder are shoulder bursitis and shoulder tendonitis:
1) Shoulder Bursitis
Burning pain in the shoulder that is fairly localized may be caused by bursitis.
Bursa are small fluid-filled sacs that sit between soft tissues (such as muscles and tendons) and bones, allowing smooth, friction-free movement. Irritation on and of the bursa from
can lead to inflammation which can cause burning shoulder pain. There are a number of different bursae located around the shoulder and shoulder blade which may be affected.
Burning shoulder pain from bursitis tends to:
Burning shoulder pain from bursitis usually responds well to rest, physical therapy, exercises, injections and anti-inflammatory pain medication.
2) Shoulder Tendonitis
Another cause of burning shoulder pain is tendonitis when there is degeneration and or inflammation in one of the muscle tendons, such as the rotator cuff or biceps tendon.
This is typically caused and aggravated by
Symptoms of shoulder tendonitis usually include the following:
Burning pain in the shoulder usually responds well to rest, physical therapy and strengthening exercises.
There are a few other conditions that can cause burning shoulder pain:
A condition where a chemical imbalance in the brain and problems in the way the central nervous system processes pain signals lead to widespread
Fibromyalgia commonly affects people between the ages of 30-50.
Burning shoulder pain from fibromyalgia will usually be accompanied by pain in a number of other joints as well as shown on the diagram here.
2) Restless Arm Syndrome
A condition where there is a problem in the central nervous system which causes abnormal movements (e.g. spontaneous jerking movements) and strange sensations such as
Usually affects both arms and may also affect the legs.
3) Gall Bladder Problems
The gall bladder is a small sac that stores bile from the liver.
Problems in the gall bladder such as inflammation or gallstones can cause burning pain in shoulder. Symptoms include intense abdominal pain which may refer to the shoulder, particularly around the
If your burning shoulder pain is accompanied by a rash, it may be that you have shingles. The pain may be quite intense. Only one side of the body will be affected.
5) Heart Attack
Burning shoulder pain accompanied by chest pain (usually a tight, crushing pain), shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea and sweating may indicate a heart attack. A heart attack is a medical emergency – seek medical assistance immediately.
6) Sleeping Awkwardly
Burning shoulder pain that starts when you wake up may be due to having slept awkwardly.
One of the shoulder muscles or nerves in the neck may have been irritated causing burning pain in shoulder. The pain will usually settle down after a few hours/days – gentle stretching exercises can help.
7) Muscle Fatigue
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) can cause burning pain in the shoulder. If you have suddenly increased you activity level or taken up a new sport, this may be the problem.