Why is my Shoulder Catching?
If you’ve ever felt an unusual sensation in your shoulder, a kind of “catching” or “snapping,” you’re not alone. Shoulder catching is a common condition that can affect individuals of all ages. It can be quite frustrating and, at times, even painful. Understanding why this happens can help us better address the issue and hopefully, find a solution.
The shoulder joint is one of the most complex in the human body. Comprising three main bones – the clavicle (collarbone), scapula (shoulder blade), and humerus (upper arm bone) – it is capable of a wide range of movements (1). However, with this complexity and mobility comes a certain susceptibility to various issues.
What is ‘Shoulder Catching’?
Other common descriptions patients might use to describe this condition include:
- Shoulder Locking: This is often used to describe the inability to move the shoulder smoothly or freely through its normal range of motion. This can be due to pain or a mechanical blockage.
- Shoulder Clicking or Popping: These are sounds or sensations that may accompany certain movements of the shoulder. They may or may not be associated with pain.
- Shoulder Grinding or Grating: This term may describe the sensation of bones rubbing against each other within the shoulder joint, often indicative of cartilage loss as seen in arthritis.
- Shoulder Instability: This term describes a sensation of looseness or that the shoulder might “give way” or dislocate. It can be associated with labral tears, ligament injuries, or other conditions that affect the stability of the shoulder joint.
- Shoulder Crepitus: Crepitus refers to a crackling or crunching feeling, often accompanied by a sound, when the joint is moved or touched. It’s typically caused by the rubbing of bone on bone or roughened cartilage surfaces.
- Shoulder Impingement: This refers to the mechanical compression or “pinching” of tendons or other soft tissues within the shoulder joint, often producing a sharp, catching-like pain during certain movements.
Underlying Causes of Shoulder Catching
- Rotator Cuff Tear or Impingement: The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that help stabilize the shoulder joint. Overuse or injury can lead to a tear in these tissues or cause impingement, where a tendon rubs against a bone. This may result in shoulder catching, particularly when raising your arm (2).
- Labral Tear: The labrum is a piece of cartilage in the shoulder that provides additional stability. A tear in the labrum, often caused by trauma or overuse, can result in shoulder instability and catching sensations (3).
The labrum is a piece of cartilage in the shoulder joint that provides additional stability. Think of it as a cuff that deepens the socket, enabling the ball of the humerus (upper arm bone) to fit more securely. The labrum also serves as an attachment point for several ligaments and tendons.
A labral tear, whether it’s from an acute injury or repetitive shoulder motion, can lead to instability in the shoulder joint. This instability might cause the ball of the humerus to move or catch against the torn labrum. The catching sensation is often accompanied by pain, a feeling of “giving way,” or a clicking, grinding, or locking sensation.
Furthermore, a specific type of labral tear known as a SLAP (Superior Labrum from Anterior to Posterior) tear affects the top part of the labrum, where the biceps tendon attaches. This type of injury can cause the shoulder to catch or lock up, particularly during overhead movements or when you’re lifting heavy objects.
It’s essential to note that not all labral tears cause symptoms, and not all result in shoulder catching. Some people might have labral tears and not be aware of them. However, when symptoms do occur, they can significantly impact an individual’s daily activities and quality of life.
- Arthritis: Arthritis can also cause a catching sensation in the shoulder. In osteoarthritis, the protective cartilage in the joint wears down, leading to a grating sensation when the bones rub together (4).
As this protective cartilage wears away, the smooth articulating surfaces of the bones are lost. The bones of the joint may begin to rub directly against each other, causing a grating or catching sensation, often described as “bone-on-bone.” This catching feeling can occur during certain movements and might be accompanied by pain, stiffness, and a decreased range of motion in the shoulder.
- Loose Bodies: Sometimes, small pieces of cartilage or bone can break off and float within the joint. These “loose bodies” can interfere with the normal function of the shoulder, leading to catching sensations (5).
- Bone Spurs: also known as osteophytes, are small, bony projections that develop along the edges of bones, often in joints. In the shoulder, bone spurs usually form on the underside of the acromion, which is the part of the scapula (shoulder blade) that forms the highest point of the shoulder.
When a bone spur develops in the shoulder, it can impinge on the rotator cuff — a group of muscles and tendons that stabilize the shoulder joint. This impingement can cause the shoulder to catch or lock up, particularly during certain movements. This condition is often referred to as shoulder impingement syndrome.
Shoulder impingement syndrome can lead to pain and limited range of motion in the shoulder. In severe cases, the impingement can even cause a rotator cuff tear, which may require surgical intervention.
Diagnosis and Treatment
If you’re experiencing shoulder catching, it’s crucial to see a healthcare professional for an accurate diagnosis. The diagnosis typically involves a physical examination and imaging studies, such as an MRI or ultrasound. Sometimes, more invasive procedures like arthroscopy may be necessary.
Treatment will depend on the underlying cause. For some, rest and physical therapy may be enough. In other cases, medications, injections, or even surgery may be necessary. The good news is that with the right treatment, most people find relief from shoulder catching.
Prevention and Self-Care
You can take several steps to prevent shoulder issues and maintain shoulder health:
- Regular Exercise: Regularly exercising your shoulder can strengthen the muscles around the joint, reducing the risk of injury (6).
- Proper Posture: Maintaining good posture can help prevent excessive strain on your shoulder, potentially reducing the chance of shoulder catching.
- Rest: Overusing the shoulder can lead to injuries. Remember to rest your shoulder, especially after intensive activities.
In conclusion, if you’re experiencing a catching sensation in your shoulder, it’s crucial to understand that this isn’t “normal” and it’s certainly not something you have to live with. With the right diagnosis and treatment, you can alleviate the symptoms and improve your quality of life.