Shoulder or Neck Pain? How to Tell the Difference

Pain specialists are often asked how to tell the difference between shoulder and neck pain. This is an important clinical question, and patients are also invested in understanding the difference between these two distinct types of problems. The treatment plan will depend on the diagnosis of the problem, so it is important to correctly identify the cause of the pain.

Professional Perspectives on Pain

Clinicians can use a variety of methods to perform the initial examination. The precise methods selected by the examiner will depend on their training. Different professionals are trained to approach the same problem using a unique set of tools. For example, chiropractors tend to analyze the neck and shoulder pain from the perspective of the alignment of the bones. However, they are also aware of the role of the soft tissues in creating pain.

Soft tissue specialists will approach the pain from the perspective of the muscles. These professionals can assess the muscles of the neck to determine which group of muscles is causing a nerve entrapment. When these muscles get tight, they can pinch the nerve, which may cause referral pain into the shoulder, for example. In this case, the clinician will have to relieve the compression in the neck in order for the patient to feel relief in the shoulder girdle. Parts of this process are experimental, so it is important to allow the professional to examine the area completely and to answer any questions they have about the quality and location of the pain.

Examining Neck and Shoulder Pain

Shoulder pain is frequently caused by problems in the neck. The cervical plexus is located in the neck, and people will experience pain when there is compression of these bones or tightness in the muscles that articulate with the neck vertebrae. There are many tests available to the clinician for examining the neck and shoulder in order to determine the location of the problem. Most professionals will begin by examining the neck for a nerve entrapment. If the source of the pain is in the shoulder, there will be no additional discomfort during movements of the neck.

Clinicians may also use magnetic resonance imagery, or MRI, to create a visual image of the soft tissues and bones in the affected areas. This can help the professional to determine whether the pain originates in the neck or the shoulder. The pain is also a symptom of some kind of problem. Acute pain occurs after a sudden injury. Accidents and other sudden impacts can cause an acute condition to develop.


Neck and shoulder pain may present similar symptoms. This is why testing the area to locate the source of the pain is so important. There are many different methods of doing this, and the pain specialists at Mid Atlantic are trained to analyze the range and quality of motion to detect the location of the nerve entrapment. This includes manual examinations and other medical tests. For additional information, or to make an appointment, contact Mid Atlantic Orthopedic Associates today.

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