The Connection Between Neck and Shoulder Pain

The Connection Between Neck and Shoulder Pain

Written by Professional Physical Therapy

Neck and shoulder pain are two seemingly disconnected problems, but they are actually more connected than you think. If you have pain in your shoulder, you might really have a neck problem. And sometimes a sore neck can mask a shoulder problem. So, how are they connected? It’s important to understand the connection and find out what’s causing the pain so you can get the right care and, on your way to feeling better.

Understanding the Connection

Many people have a difficult time deciding whether their pain originates in the neck or shoulder. This is because pain in your neck can radiate into the shoulders – the nerves that give sensation to your shoulders originate at the neck. The neck and shoulders are interconnected areas. These body parts share bones, tendons and ligaments, connective soft tissues, and nerves, making it easy for pain to radiate throughout these areas.

“Pain from the shoulder area can sometimes be coming from your neck. This is because the nerves and muscles that arise from you neck pass through your shoulder on their way down the arm. The nerves from your neck (Nerve Roots) also travel down your arm (via Brachial Plexus). So, neck pain may extend down your arm. Pain from the neck is usually felt at the top of your shoulder over your trapezius muscle, while pain from your shoulder is felt over your upper arm” [1].

However, many people can experience pain in both the neck and shoulder. It takes an experienced clinician to help you differentiate the two sources of pain.

Shoulder vs. Neck Pain Symptoms

Even though the neck (or cervical spine) and the shoulder are closely connected, there are accompanying symptoms for each. Health Essentials from the Cleveland Clinic identifies pain that originates in your shoulder typically:

  • Develops in the shoulder itself or on the outside of your upper arm
  • Radiates pain into your upper arm
  • Gets worse when you reach overhead or behind your back, or when lifting
  • Is worse at night, especially when lying on your side
  • Is more of a dull, persistent ache
  • Feels better after resting your arm

They also identify that neck pain can cause these symptoms:

  • Radiates to your shoulder blade, or close to or on the side of your neck
  • Pain that feels like an electrical shock, sometimes radiating down your arm
  • Radiates pain down past your elbow or even into your hand
  • Pain that gets worse when you twist or move your neck
  • Pain that’s not relieved by rest, but may be relieved with support

Causes of Shoulder and Neck pain

While some people experience only neck pain or only shoulder pain, others experience both. Common causes of neck pain (sourced by WebMD) are:

  • Abnormalities in the bone or joints
  • Trauma
  • Poor posture
  • Degenerative diseases
  • Tumors
  • Muscle strain

The same medical professionals’ site the common causes of shoulder pain are:

  • Strains from overexertion
  • Tendonitis from overuse
  • Shoulder joint instability
  • Dislocation
  • Clavicle or upper arm bone fractures
  • Frozen shoulder (stiffness and pain in your shoulder joint)
  • Pinched nerves (also called cervical radiculopathy)
  • Rotator cuff tears (rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that surround the shoulder joint, keeping the head of the upper arm bone firmly within the shallow socket of the shoulder)

Getting the Right Treatment

If your neck and shoulder pain is mild, you can help relieve the pain with a few home remedies. For more severe symptoms, see a doctor or licensed Physical Therapist.

  • Take a break from sports or other activities that may aggravate the area.
  • Use an ice pack on the area for the first three days after your pain starts. Wrap the ice pack in a towel and use it for up to 20 minutes, 5 times a day. This will help reduce swelling.
  • Take OTC pain relievers.
  • Gently massage the neck and shoulder area.

Our team of licensed therapists provide physical therapy for shoulder pain to help improve your function and relieve your pain.

Knowing why you’re experiencing shoulder pain is the first step to treating it. If you are experiencing neck and/or shoulder pain, request an appointment at Professional Physical Therapy. We are here to help you reach your goals and get your life healthier and more comfortable today!



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