You raise your arm and suddenly hear a pop, a crack, or a click. Sound familiar? If you’re experiencing these occasional sounds and sensations in your shoulder, rest assured that it is highly common. The shoulder, or glenohumeral joint, is one of the body’s largest and most complex joints and we use it frequently throughout each day. In the medical world, shoulder popping and cracking is also known as crepitus.
Crepitus is generally a common, harmless condition, unless accompanied by pain, swelling, and additional symptoms. Shoulder pain and stiffness are the third most common muscle and joint issues that bring people to the doctor.
What Is Shoulder Popping?
Many medical professionals believe that the shoulder popping sound and sensation comes from the formation of tiny gas bubbles in the synovial fluid that fills the joint. It can happen in any of your joints but it is most common in your knees, fingers, and, of course, your shoulders. Shoulder popping, also referred to as crepitus, is commonly experienced when the shoulder joint is moved in different ways—particularly when the arm is raised or rotated backward or forward.
Your shoulder is a large and complex joint that contains muscles, bones, tendons, and cartilage to enable maximum mobility of your arms—this leaves plenty of opportunity to experience occasional pops and clicks. Shoulder popping can also be a symptom of a more serious condition, especially if you’ve experienced an injury. It is important to pay attention to any increase in frequency and additional symptoms that accompany it.
How Do I Know If I Dislocated My Shoulder?
If you think you have dislocated your shoulder, it will be almost impossible for it to bear weight or move without pain. A dislocated shoulder can also be visibly deformed—the rounded slope of the shoulder will flatten out and your arms’ lengths will not match up (the arm attached to the dislocated shoulder will appear slightly longer).
In addition to the identifiers above, common dislocated shoulder symptoms include:
- Muscle spasms
- Intense pain
If you are wondering how to pop your shoulder back in place on your own, the answer is that unless you are very comfortable with the anatomy of the shoulder and the complications that can arise with this procedure, you should avoid attempting this. Not only is it difficult and very painful to do without adequate pain control, but a failed attempt may cause further damage. After correcting a shoulder dislocation, treatment typically includes icing and resting the arm in a sling.
Rehabilitation exercises to strengthen the muscles around the shoulder are also important steps toward recovery. A dislocated shoulder can take up to 16 weeks to heal after initial treatment. During this time, you must limit movement and shouldn’t carry anything heavy.
How Do I Know If I Damaged My Rotator Cuff?
The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that surround the shoulder joint. Unlike a shoulder dislocation, damage to the rotator cuff results in a tear. Tears commonly occur when the tendons have been weakened by aging, degeneration, or trauma. If trauma is the cause, you may experience an initial popping sensation at the time of injury.
Symptoms associated with a rotator cuff injury may include:
- A dull ache deep in the shoulder
- Disturbed sleep
- Difficulty raising your arm or reaching behind your back
- Arm weakness
Though rotator cuff damage occurs in the shoulder, it is not typically associated with increased shoulder popping, since it involves damage to the muscles and tendons. If you are at risk of rotator cuff injuries or if you’ve had a rotator cuff injury in the past, you can prevent future complications with daily shoulder strengthening exercises.
What Causes Shoulder Popping?
The shoulder is a ball and socket joint between the scapula and humerus bones and one of the most mobile joints in the human body. Sometimes, working out or simply raising your shoulders quickly can release gas from your joints that cause air bubbles, or cavitation. In such cases, there is likely no underlying significant medical condition related to your shoulder cracking.
Aside from everyday use, there are several conditions that can lead to shoulder popping. These include:
- Scapulothoracic bursitis: A condition caused by the inflammation of the fluid-filled sacs that protect your joint and causes a stabbing pain or warmth and “popping” sound when you try to move your arms in any direction.
- Labral tear: Torn cartilage due to injury, age, or overuse. Labral tears are identified by consistent popping and pain.
- Improperly treated fracture: A shoulder fracture—even one as small as a hairline fracture—can lead to long-term issues if it does not heal properly. When your bones fuse together after being separated, ridges can be created along your shoulder blades or ribs, which often result in shoulder popping or cracking.
- Osteochondroma: A benign overgrowth of cartilage and bone that can cause your shoulder to crack at times when you raise your arm. It is the most common noncancerous bone growth.
- Osteoarthritis: The most common chronic joint condition which is a result of cartilage degeneration in your joints. If you hear a snapping or cracking sound in your shoulder, this could mean your bones are making contact with each other and could be an early sign of arthritis.
Sometimes people experience shoulder popping while working out—especially when doing overhead exercises such as lateral pulldowns. This could be the result of a cavitation (gas released within your joints) and is generally harmless. However, it’s important to warm up and stretch before any workout to help avoid injury. If the popping starts to radiate and cause pain, you should stop exercising immediately and consult a doctor as it could be the result of an injury.
How to Treat a Popping Shoulder
If you are experiencing shoulder popping without other signs of pain or discomfort, treatment may not be necessary. In some more temporary cases, over-the-counter pain relievers can be all you need. As for recurring shoulder pain, there are several assisted remedies you can try including:
- Massage therapy
- Corticosteroid injections
- Physical therapy
- Chiropractic visit and adjustment
If you’re not experiencing pain, but would like to minimize shoulder popping and cracking, the following at-home remedies could help.
- Foam rolling: A foam roller stimulates the soft tissue in your shoulder. You can consult with a physical therapist about different foam rolling exercises to try.
- Yoga: Practicing yoga can be an effective way to combat shoulder issues as it focuses on stretching and strengthening your muscles over time.
- Cold therapy: Placing ice or a cold compress on your shoulder can numb the area and decrease swelling.
- Posture correction: The way you sit and stand has a significant impact on your shoulders. Focus on good posture for long-term relief.
Shoulder Dislocation Prevention
While a shoulder dislocation can happen for many reasons, you can help to prevent it by maintaining muscle strength and flexibility. Children and adults should also avoid play or other activities that involve tugging and pulling on the arms. If you are an athlete concerned about shoulder dislocation, you can wear protective gear during sports activities.
If your shoulder is dislocated, physical therapy may help prevent you from dislocating it in the future. As you restore your shoulder’s range of motion and physical strength, you decrease your risk for future dislocation.
Risk Factors and Complications
Occasional shoulder popping and cracking is very common. For most people, it occurs more frequently with age and should not be cause for concern. However, if you experience shoulder popping and pain or other symptoms, don’t ignore it.
Common risk factors for shoulder popping, pain, and other injuries include:
- Age: Joints start to break down over time, especially those used as often as the shoulder.
- Occupation: Occupations that involve repetitive arm motions, often overhead, can cause more damage over time.
- Activity: Repetitive overhead activity or heavy lifting over a prolonged period of time can increase your risk of a shoulder injury.
- Family history: There may be a genetic component involved, especially with rotator cuff injuries which appear to occur more commonly in certain families.
Shoulder injuries that don’t heal properly can sometimes result in a condition called “frozen shoulder.” This condition occurs when the tissue in your shoulder joint grows tighter and thicker, which causes scar tissue to form. It can lead to pain and swelling and restrict your range of motion.
When to See a Doctor
If cracking or popping in the shoulder is accompanied by other symptoms like pain and swelling, or if you experience an injury, it is important that you see a doctor. Successful treatment is a time-sensitive matter, and having professional help early on can dramatically improve long-term results. Likewise, following a treatment plan consistently can have significant long-term benefits.
Once diagnosed, medical treatment may include:
- Anti-inflammatory medication
- Pain medication
- Heat or cold therapy
- Muscle relaxers
- Physical therapy with targeted muscle toning exercises
- Surgery to repair torn or stretched muscles and ligaments
- Surgery if there is bone damage in the area
- A sling to keep your arm and shoulder immobile
- A brace
- Massage therapy
- Chiropractic treatment
After the initial treatment, you may also be shown exercises that you can do at home or at work for a few minutes each day to minimize the risk of future injuries.
How K Health Can Help
Shoulder popping is common and generally not a serious condition, unless accompanied by other symptoms like pain, bruising, and swelling. If you are experiencing any additional symptoms, you may want to see a doctor.
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K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.