What is shoulder bursitis?

We talk about shoulder bursitis and tell you what causes it.

December 15, 2020


Shoulder bursitis is inflammation of the shoulder bursa. Bursa are small, fluid-filled sacs that help cushion movement and stop friction in the joints.

Bursa contain a lubricating substance called synovial fluid that helps with cushioning. Bursa are usually in areas of the body that move, such as between the bones, tendons and muscles near the joints.

Because the shoulder is one of the largest joints in the body, it has many bursa. This is why the shoulder is often affected by bursitis. Symptoms of shoulder bursitis usually include tenderness, pain, heat and swelling.

Movement may be limited, due to stiffness. Pain is often worse in the morning or after physical movement. 

Shoulder pain may also be caused by subacromial bursitis. This happens when shoulder bursa are trapped and compressed between your rotator cuff tendons and shoulder bone during shoulder movements.

Causes of shoulder bursitis

Bursitis is often caused by strenuous or repetitive physical movement, such as throwing, lifting or digging. People who play sports such as baseball, football and basketball are more likely to have shoulder bursitis.

In other cases, a single injury or trauma to the shoulder can result in bursitis. This can happen with falls or collisions.

Shoulder joint pain and bursitis can be caused by inflammatory conditions or swelling problems, such as:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis (painful swelling in the joints)
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (a disease of the immune system)

Sometimes bursitis happens for no clear reason. 

How to stop bursitis 

You can lower your chances of getting bursitis by making a few lifestyle changes. The following tips can help ease muscle strain and reduce trauma and swelling:

  • Don’t carry heavy loads.
  • Take a lot of breaks if you have to do repetitive movements that use the shoulder, such as digging or painting.
  • Strengthen the surrounding muscles in the shoulder with exercise.
  • Warm up the shoulder before physical movement.
  • Stretch the shoulder and arm muscles after physical movement.

Care for bursitis

Don't delay care if you have shoulder pain. If you don't get help from a doctor, shoulder bursitis can lead to calcium deposits building up in the soft tissues, known as calcific bursitis. This may permanently limit or stop movement of the shoulder.

Shoulder bursitis care usually begins with lessening inflammation. This may be done by applying ice compresses to lessen swelling. Rest is also a good idea.

You may be fitted with a shoulder sling to support the joint and stop the shoulder from moving. Your doctor will usually tell you to take medication for pain.

If you have a serious case of bursitis, you may need aspiration (fluid from your shoulder bursa is removed) to help with the pressure it causes. Aspiration is done with a needle and syringe. Shoulder surgeons can also help figure out the proper care for bursitis.

Shoulder bursitis care usually involves some form of physiotherapy to help bring back movement in the shoulder muscles. Alternative therapies such as acupuncture may help lessen pain.

If necessary, you may need corticosteroid injections to help lessen inflammation and improve movement. Corticosteroids are a type of medicine that help with swelling.

It's rare to need to remove a damaged bursa with surgery. If your bursitis is both serious and long-term, surgery may be needed.

Dr. Daniel Schwartz can help you with bursitis and shoulder pain. To schedule an appointment with him, please contact his office at 1-206-860-5578.


By Daniel Schwartz, MD

Horizontal Rule

The information provided is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be medical advice or a substitute for professional health care. You should consult an appropriate health care professional for your specific needs.