Physical therapist demonstrating shoulder anatomy

Cracking the Code: Understanding Noisy Shoulders

When crackles and pops come from your shoulder versus your bowl of cereal, it can be concerning. The good news is that shoulder cracking, snapping, or popping when moving your arm can be perfectly normal and does not always indicate a bigger issue. We aim to guide you in determining the next steps as we explore causes, treatments, and prevention options for noisy shoulder joints.

 

Shoulder Anatomy

First, let’s gather a brief understanding of the anatomy of your shoulder. The shoulder, also known as the glenohumeral joint, is a ball and socket joint capable of multidirectional movement. It’s composed of muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, cartilage, and bursa. Any of these structures can be easily injured, over-used, or degraded with age or decreased use.

The shoulder is a ball and socket joint consisting of the humerus bone (upper arm bone) and the scapula bone (shoulder blade). The rotator cuff consists of four muscles that provide shoulder and scapula movement. Ligaments and tendons connect bone to bone and bone to muscle, respectively. Bursae are fluid-filled sacs that provide lubrication and cushioning to the joint, and cartilage (labrum) holds everything in place.

 

My shoulder pops but doesn’t hurt. Should I be concerned?

Crepitus is the popping, clicking, or crackling sound you hear when you move your shoulder, and it is usually harmless. Common reasons for experiencing shoulder popping when lifting, rotating, or performing other shoulder movements without pain include:

  • Aging
  • Posture
  • Long-term immobility
  • Old fracture or injuries
  • Idiopathic noise (shoulder popping without an explanation or injury) 
  • Cavitation*

* Cavitation happens when there is air in the joint, usually when some of the liquid lubricant turns into a gas. A quick shoulder movement then releases this air and creates a popping noise. This is similar in sound and sensation to cracking your knuckles. Often there is no pain or related illness

 

My shoulder pops and it hurts. What should I do?

There can be underlying pathological issues associated with noisy shoulders. Most of these disorders cause pain in and around the shoulder and often include weakness or loss of function. These are the most common medical conditions associated with shoulder pain and popping:

  • Bursitis: inflammation of the bursa, or bursae, in the shoulder and scapula areas
  • Labral Tears:  cartilage of your shoulder joint is torn by repetitive motions, injury, or age 
  • Osteoarthritis: OA is the most common form of arthritis and is the result of cartilage breaking down because of changes or damage to the tissue or structure of the joint.  
  • Rotator Cuff Injuries: damage to any of the four muscles of the shoulder joint and adjacent tendons. 

 

Start with physical therapy

The great news is that physical therapy can help the conditions listed above or be used as prevention for worsening of a noisy shoulder. Shoulder movement should not be painful and failure to treat a shoulder joint issue or injury can result in long term loss of function.  If your shoulder pop is accompanied by pain, warmth, decreased range of motion, decreased strength, request an appointment with your physical therapist for a shoulder evaluation. 

Physical therapist measuring shoulder ROM
Physical therapist testing shoulder ROM

 

Our doctors of physical therapy will assess your posture, muscle strength, and flexibility to pinpoint potential causes of the popping or cracking. You will be given a personalized treatment plan to address the underlying cause of your noisy, painful shoulder and to relieve pain. While shoulder sounds may not always be fully eliminated with physical therapy, shoulder pain is a highly treatable condition. 

Start feeling better today! Request an appointment with one of our skilled Doctors of Physical Therapy to start feeling better now.

 

More questions? Give us a call at (479) 442-7473. Check out our Instagram to find more examples of exercises and stretches for noisy shoulders!

Carrie Lynch

Written by Carrie Lynch, PT, DPT