Understanding Bursitis Shoulder Pain: How to Get Relief

Understanding Bursitis Shoulder Pain: How to Get Relief

Inside each of your shoulders is a small fluid-filled sac called a bursa. Bursae help reduce friction between joint bones. If the bursa in the shoulder becomes inflamed, it can lead to a condition called shoulder bursitis.

Causes may include injury, overuse, or a medical condition that causes joint inflammation, such as rheumatoid arthritis. Shoulder bursitis is also known as "subacromial bursitis". It can be treated in a number of ways, either at home or in a doctor's office.

What does frozen shoulder feel like?

The shoulder bursa acts as a cushion for the tendons in the rotator cuff, connecting bone to bone. If you have bursitis, certain movements of your shoulder and tendon can cause severe pain and discomfort. Pain may vary based on your specific injury. However, some of the more common symptoms of bursitis are:

  • discomfort when lying on the shoulder
  • Pain on the outside or top of the shoulder
  • The pain gets worse when you lift your arm to the side
  • Pain when pushing or opening doors
  • pain when trying to "circle" your arm
  • Pressure and pain when pushing the top of the shoulder

Some people are at higher risk for shoulder bursitis because they use their shoulders more than others. Examples of people who are more likely to develop bursitis include:

  • carpenter
  • musician
  • athlete
  • gardener

However, anyone can injure their shoulder and develop bursitis.

Frozen Shoulder Treatment at Home

Because bursitis is often caused by inflammation, allowing the shoulders enough time to rest can often help reduce symptoms. Some examples of home steps that can help reduce bursitis symptoms include:

rest your shoulders

Avoiding activities that you know will make your symptoms worse can help reduce your symptoms. Usually, this is a professional activity or a regular pastime.

taking over-the-counter pain relievers

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are especially helpful in reducing inflammation. These include:

  • ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
  • naproxen sodium (Aleve)

Acetaminophen (Tylenol) may also help relieve pain.

Apply an ice pack to the affected area

There is always some kind of protective covering between the ice and the skin. Apply cold compresses only for 10 to 15 minutes at a time.

wear shoulder straps

The shoulder straps can help remind you to rest your arms and avoid doing too much. These are available at most drugstores, but you may need a physical therapist or doctor to show you how to wear them properly.

The Ultimate Guide to Shoulder Support

perform gentle stretches

But don't stretch to the point of extreme pain or discomfort.

Bursitis Shoulder Exercises

These exercises can be performed 2 to 3 times a day to stretch the shoulder muscles, which may help reduce tension.

back stretch

While sitting or standing, place your arms on your body and your hands on the backs of your opposite shoulders.

Press the back of the elbow with the other hand to deepen the stretch, feeling the stretch in the back of the shoulder.

Hold this position for 15 to 30 seconds. Repeat 2 to 4 times.

Stretch on the other side.

Scapula Crush

Stand or sit with your arms by your sides. Pull your shoulders back and imagine that you are bringing your shoulder blades into contact. Keep your shoulders down as you perform the exercise to feel a greater stretch in the front of your shoulders.

Hold this position for 6 seconds.

Repeat the exercise 6 to 8 times.

scapula range of motion

Raise your shoulders like a shrug and hold this position for 5 seconds. Lower your shoulders.

Move your shoulders down and feel the stretch at the top of your shoulders. Hold this position for 5 seconds.

Rotate your shoulders back 5 turns in a circular motion. Stop and repeat by rotating your shoulders forward.

Treating severe shoulder bursitis

corticosteroids and pain relievers

If home remedies don't work, your doctor may prescribe stronger pain relievers. However, these will not cure the underlying cause of bursitis.

Another option is to inject corticosteroids around the bursa. However, you can only have a limited number of these injections because they increase the likelihood that your tendon will rupture.


In rare cases, your doctor may recommend bursitis surgery. Your doctor usually doesn't recommend surgery as a treatment unless you've been experiencing problems that haven't gone away for 6 to 12 months.

If you do need surgery, your doctor will most likely do it arthroscopically. This means they will make small incisions in your skin and insert surgical instruments to remove damaged areas of tissue that may be pressing or irritating the bursa.

Sometimes, doctors remove the bursa to create more space for the tendon. Often, physical therapy is recommended to facilitate recovery.

What is the outlook for frozen shoulder?

Bursitis is usually a chronic disease, which means that overuse often triggers your symptoms. You may be able to identify bursitis-related triggers, such as overuse of the shoulder muscles.

By finding the right level of activity, you can reduce the symptoms of bursitis while staying active. However, sometimes only surgery can fully address the underlying cause associated with bursitis.

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