Pinched Nerve in the Shoulder and How to Handle It

What Is a Pinched Nerve in the Shoulder and How to Handle It?
Febin Melepura Physical Therapist New York, NY

Dr. Febin Melepura is an Ivy League trained sport injury doctor and best rated pain management specialist in NYC who is highly specialized in treating any pain related issues – from back and neck to sports related injuries. NYC Sport injury specialist Dr. Melepura is board certified in Pain Management and Anesthesiology.... more

Spinal discs have the function of absorbing shock between the vertebrae. They make sure that your bones can withstand any pressure they might encounter due to certain movements and even in cases of trauma. With time, however, these discs begin to lose their density, becoming thinner and thinner.

This is when bone spurs can begin to develop. Although bone spurs usually have negative effects on the body, the purpose of their formation is to protect the discs that have become thinner. Bone spurs shouldn't start to form and when they do, they might put additional pressure on a nerve of the spine. This is what is known as a pinched nerve.

A pinched nerve will firstly and mainly present itself with shoulder pain. However, as there are so many reasons for the shoulders to hurt, patients usually do not suspect this immediately and believe the pain is coming from elsewhere. If the shoulder pain is simply not going away on its own, it is time to visit a medical professional. At the doctor's office, you will first get a physical exam. Only a thorough exam can lead the doctor to the right diagnosis. There are several indicators that will help your physician find the correct diagnosis after a physical exam:

  • Pain in one shoulder is a typical sign of a pinched nerve. Usually, the area that will hurt the most will where the bone spurs are and where the pinched nerve is.
  • Sharp pain is another indicator. The pain you feel won't be the same as the one after a strain or an overworked muscle; the pain will be rather sharp, affecting the area near the pinched nerve.
  • Pain that gets worse when turning your head is also a sign of a pinched nerve, as well as headaches and neck pain.
  • Weakness and numbness of the joint when you are trying to carry something a bit heavier is also typical for a pinched nerve of the shoulder.


The physical exam will include a testing of your reflexes, muscle strength, and sensation. The doctor will ask you to do certain movements and stretches to find out what you can do and which motions are limited to a certain extent. It is important to describe to the doctor exactly what you're feeling, where you're feeling it, and when you started to feel that way.

If you've had an injury lately, it is important to tell the medical professional about it and describe exactly what happened. If you've started exercising more recently or took on a new sport, don't forget to share those too, as these are all changes that may have affected and led to the pain that you are now feeling.

Imaging tests might also be necessary and in most cases, you will have to undergo some testing, as this is the best way of confirm the diagnosis. An X-ray can be used, although it doesn't provide any images of the nerves. What doctors can detect by using an X-ray are the bone spurs that might have developed, which do indicate that something isn't right. An MRI is a lot more helpful in diagnosing a pinched nerve, as it is able to show the nerves and discs, as well as their health state. If a nerve is pinched, it will show on the MRI. This is a harmless, painless method that does not use any radiation. 


After getting the diagnosis, you will want to focus on the healing part! For a pinched nerve, treatment will usually consist of physical therapy, where you will be able to improve the strength as well as the flexibility of your shoulder. Your doctor might also advise you to try and gently move your neck. You might need to wear a collar for a certain period of time to prevent movement of the neck. This is important for the healing period.

If you keep putting pressure on the pinched nerve, it will take more time to heal and it will be more difficult too! For the pain, your doctor might prescribe you with anti-inflammatory medication, which not only fights the pain but the inflammation as well. A pinched nerve usually leads to swelling of the area and these medications work towards removing that swelling. Sometimes, steroid injections will be used. These are also highly efficient towards fighting the swelling, as well as the pain.

If nothing seems to help and the condition is very extreme, the bone spurs that have been pinching the nerve might need to be removed surgically. Therefore, it is important to try everything to avoid this last resort. Apart from physical therapy, you can learn how to properly do the stretches, which you can do at home, a couple of times a day. It will also be important for you to learn how to adjust your posture, which will not only be important during the healing period but afterward as well.

This is one way of preventing future conditions from occurring. Ice and heat therapy are also very helpful towards relaxing the muscles and easing the pain. And lastly, rest after getting diagnosed with a pinched nerve. You should try and avoid movements that cause you pain as much as possible. Getting enough rest will lead to quicker improvement.

When feeling shoulder pain, it is common to assume that you have a strain and therefore not pay any attention to it. However, when you notice that pain is not going away, the best thing to do is visit a doctor and find out the cause. Only by knowing what is causing the pain will you be able to do something about it and make sure that it doesn't happen in the future too. A pinched nerve is a condition that can be healed and is best treated when diagnosed early. This is just one reason for you to start doing something about it as soon as possible!