How to Tell the Difference Between Shoulder and Neck Pain

Do you sometimes have pain in your neck? Then are there times your shoulder hurts? If you aren’t exactly sure where the pain is coming from, you’re not alone. It can be hard to tell. Let’s discover how to tell the difference between shoulder and neck pain.

Woman with neck and shoulder pain.

Referred Pain

After sitting at your computer all day, you stand up and your neck and shoulders are tight and the pain can be excruciating. What is really hurting? Is it the neck, your shoulder, or both?

It can be hard to decipher because neck pain can radiate to your shoulder and the opposite is also true. This happens because both share the same nerve pathways. If a nerve becomes irritated, it doesn’t communicate to the brain what is the actual source of the pain. The disconnect between the source and where it’s felt is known as “referred pain”.

Some Common Causes and Symptoms of Shoulder Pain

If you injure your rotator cuff, the group of muscles and tendons necessary to stabilize your shoulder, it can cause damage resulting in other areas of the body needing to compensate. When this occurs, it may strain the muscles and the result is pain from the top of the shoulder into the neck.

Rotator cuff tears have the following symptoms: pain that hurts more at night, when raising your arm, or extending your arm behind your head. It does not hurt beyond your elbow. 

You may also have strains from the following:

  • Overexertion
  • Tendonitis from overuse
  • Shoulder joint instability
  • Dislocation
  • Frozen shoulder

Causes and Symptoms of Neck Pain

Poor posture, injury, muscle strain, and a degenerative disease can all lead to neck pain. If a spinal disc irritates one of the nerves in your spine, that pain can radiate into your shoulder or arms. This is known as radiculopathy. This makes it difficult to find out if the pain is coming from your neck or shoulder.

If it comes from the cervical spine, it is a stabbing pain with tingling in your hands and feet. It is made worse when you move your neck. You can always tell it’s neck pain if you get relief from supporting your neck with a pillow.

If you are experiencing frequent shoulder pain, find a specialist like Dr. Koo for a proper evaluation and diagnosis in Seattle, WA. Not treating these issues can lead to worsening pain and permanent nerve damage.

Call (425) 823-4000 to make an appointment with shoulder surgeon Samuel Koo, MD, MPH to determine the source of your shoulder pain.