Jennifer Freeman, MD
Jennifer Freeman, MD

Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) in 2008 from UT Health San Antonio, Surgeon at TRACC Dallas

Oct 27, 2018 3 min read

RA in Shoulder: What are the Symptoms of Arthritis in the Shoulder?

Perhaps you felt an unexpected twinge when you went to pick up a load of groceries or maybe you find yourself avoiding an afternoon of golf or tennis with your friends. Shoulder pain can come on suddenly or develop slowly. When it occurs, it can keep you from doing the things you love or even make it difficult to do your job. What could be the cause? Certainly, many things cause shoulder pain, but for someone who suffers from Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA), the first instinct is always to look at the possibility that RA is to blame. So, what do you need to know about RA and shoulder pain? We have put together some basic information to help you understand and deal with this issue.

What is RA Anyway?

While RA is a complex disorder, understanding at least the basics is vital. First of all, it is an autoimmune disease. Having any autoimmune disease means that your body is essentially attacking normal cells as if they were a disease or “intruder.” Secondly, it nearly always targets the joints. Since it attacks the joints, this means that you are likely to experience pain in the elbow, knees or yes, shoulders. Finally, while RA is a long-term disease, the symptoms often come and go. Therefore, pain that isn’t consistent COULD certainly still be due to RA.

Signs of RA in Your Shoulder

As mentioned, there are plenty of things that could cause shoulder pain, so RA isn’t always the culprit. However, if you have already been diagnosed with RA pain in other areas of your body, it is certainly a distinct possibility. Some of the most common symptoms of RA, according to WebMD, include:

•    Swelling – An RA joint is often fluid-filled. This can make the area surrounding it appear puffy and large. The fluid that fills the joint can also cause further damage to the bone and structure of the joint itself, leading to further pain down the road.

•    Pain – What causes the pain with RA? It is actually caused by the inflammation within the joint. It is tender to the touch. Plus, the swelling puts pressure on your nerves, causing pain.

•    Redness and Warmth – Does your shoulder feel warm, feverish or have a red tone to it? When a joint is being “attacked” by RA, there is often warmth and redness.

What Can RA Do to the Shoulder?

In addition to causing pain, RA in the shoulder can be problematic in other ways. One of the most difficult things to deal with is the limited range of movement you may experience. The limit to your movement is why you may find it hard to swing a golf club or pick up the groceries like you once did. Even if you have the pain under control with the use of pain medication, the stiffness and inflammation may prevent you from doing everything you once did.

What Can Be Done for RA in the Shoulder?

First and foremost, if you suspect you have shoulder pain that may stem from RA, contact your doctor immediately. Prompt treatment can prevent the most severe problems. After all, a joint suffering from RA may be more likely to develop other problems (such as rotator cuff tears) than healthy joints.

Once your doctor has diagnosed RA in your shoulder, he or she will usually recommend a combination of drug treatment and non-drug treatment. Non-drug management of RA to the shoulder may involve resting the joint, application of heat and cool and maintaining a healthy diet. Physical therapy may also be a useful tool. Physical therapy (PT) could include massage, controlled exercise or other forms of rehabilitation. PT can often relieve some symptoms of RA and also lead to a quicker healing time for any concurrent injuries too. Finally, as stated in an article published by NCBI, surgery may be an option as well to help control the pain and prevent further injury to the shoulder.

As always, taking care of your RA, whether it affects your shoulder or any other part of the body, is a team effort between you and your doctors. Any new, unexpected pain should be brought to the attention of your rheumatologist or your general practitioner as soon as possible. In doing so, you can get back to normal as quickly and easily as possible. After all, no one likes shoulder pain!