Clinical evaluation of nonarthritic shoulder pain

Shoulder pain and dysfunction is a complicated issue often encountered by primary care physicians. Common nonarthritic conditions seen in the primary care setting include rotator cuff syndrome, impingement, posttraumatic stiffness, adhesive capsulitis, and instability. A thorough history and physical examination can assist in the diagnosis of many common shoulder complaints. Pain and instability are the most common shoulder complaints. Pain that is sharp or burning is commonly radicular in origin, whereas pain caused by tendinitis is often dull, diffuse, and aching. Instability is often found in patients with a history of dislocation, but also may occur with no prior history. Imaging modalities such as magnetic resonance imaging can be useful for more advanced pathology. However, many common shoulder conditions can be diagnosed without imaging, and may be initially treated with a short course of rest, ice, topical analgesics, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, directed and supervised physical therapy, and occasionally subacromial corticosteroid injections. As always, a detailed history and a thorough physical exam by a primary care physician are vital for diagnosis. When conservative measures fail, referral to an orthopaedic surgeon may be needed for further patient management.