What is referred shoulder pain?

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The pain in the shoulder can be referred or triggered by an issue in another part of the body such as the spine or neck. If there is pressure on the nerves from various causes, it can result to pain that is transmitted to the shoulder. To learn to recognize and manage this symptom, register for first aid training today.

What are the causes of referred shoulder pain?

Referred pain from the cervical spine is typically caused by compression of the nerve root or nerve. This can occur due to various reasons including issues with the vertebral discs, osteoarthritic changes, muscle spasms, tumors or spinal fractures. With this in mind, referred shoulder pain is considered common among older adults expect in cases that are caused by trauma.

Referred shoulder pain
The symptoms usually depend on the area pain is referred from in the thoracic spine but typically includes pain that radiates into the neck, arm, chest or shoulders

Once the nerve is compressed, its capability to transport information to vital areas in the body is compromised. Some nerves transport sensory information which can trigger pins and needles sensation, strange and tingling sensations if these are compressed. If the nerves responsible for transporting motor information are compressed, it can lead to muscle weakness and oftentimes issues with movement and coordination. In some cases, the compression can affect both types of information.


The symptoms usually depend on the area pain is referred from in the thoracic spine but typically includes pain that radiates into the neck, arm, chest or shoulders. There is also tingling and numbness in the hands or fingers that can also be present along with muscle weakness and poor coordination, especially in the hands.

Depending on the level the problem is occurring, the weakness and pain can be experienced in various parts of the body.

If there is damage to the nerve root between C4 and C5, it will result to pain at the base of the neck that spreads to the shoulder and upper arm along with weakness in the biceps muscles with a certain degree of numbness over the shoulder.

Damage to the nerve root at the C5-C6 level can lead to pain radiating from the neck to the shoulder and scapula, down to the exterior surface of the arm. There is also weakness in the biceps muscles with numbness along the thumb and index finger.

If the nerve roots at C6-C7 are damaged, it will cause pain from the neck and shoulder down to the exterior surface of the arm up to the middle finger. There is also weakness in the triceps with diminished sensation along the rear of the hand and middle finger. In addition, the symptoms are reduced if the hands are placed on top of the head which relieves pressure on the nerve by increasing the space between the cervical vertebrae.

What are the steps to take?

It is vital to consult a doctor to carefully assess the symptoms of referred shoulder pain to ensure that there are no serious issues causing them. The appropriate treatment can be started to ease the discomfort of the individual.

A chiropractor can perform spinal and joint manipulations to release the pressure on the nerves that might be causing the referred shoulder pain. In addition, sports massage can also help loosen up the neck and back muscles that might be contributing factors to the issue.

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