Hearing a cracking or popping in the shoulder can be unsettling. However, unless it accompanies pain, swelling, or other symptoms, joint cracking and popping are generally harmless.
Cracking, clicking, and popping sounds are quite common in the joints. Doctors refer to this as crepitus. Though crepitus happens often, the reason that joints pop is not always clear.
Scientists have thought that the noise may have something to do with the release of gas from the fluid or the spaces within the joints.
The shoulder is a complicated part of the skeleton. Two joints provide movement, including the glenohumeral joint, in which the head of the long bone in the upper arm fits into a shallow socket. Some know this as a ball-and-socket joint.
Read on to learn more about common causes of cracking shoulders, as well as treatments, when necessary.
Dislocation or partial dislocation of the shoulder can cause instability.
The joint slipping in and out of place can also cause a cracking sound.
Dislocation can cause the shoulder to appear to rest too far forward or backward, or it may hang below where it should.
Shoulder dislocation has several causes and treatments. They include:
Trauma to the shoulder
This trauma often results from sports injuries or accidents, in which something hitting the shoulder causes the bone within the joint to pop out of place.
Dislocation most commonly occurs in the glenohumeral ball-and-socket joint.
Cartilage along the rim of the socket may tear when dislocation occurs. This tear is called a Bankart lesion, and it may make the shoulder more prone to further dislocations or feelings of instability.
After an injury, a doctor should be able to diagnose a dislocation with a physical examination and X-rays. This type of imaging test can also help reveal any broken bones or other injuries.
If a shoulder keeps dislocating and the cartilage in the joint is torn, doctors may recommend stabilization surgery to repair the tear.
Overextension of the shoulder joint
A shoulder may dislocate if a person extends the joint too far. This can happen during an everyday activity if a person has extremely flexible joints.
When overextension occurs, the shoulder will often pop back into the socket easily.
Physiotherapy and exercises may help prevent overextension, if a person experiences it frequently.
Abnormal shoulder muscles
Sometimes, a person dislocates a shoulder without pain. This may result from having weak or abnormal muscles around the shoulder.
If dislocation occurs due to an issue with the muscles, physiotherapy could help strengthen them. A physiotherapist or doctor may also suggest surgeries to reduce the size of the joint and help prevent dislocation from occurring.
Some people hear and feel a snapping while moving their shoulder blades. This can be due to inflammation in a fluid-filled sac called a bursa.
The purpose of the bursae is to reduce friction in joints. Inflammation in one or more bursae is called scapulothoracic bursitis, in this instance.
This inflammation may cause no pain, or it may cause the shoulder blade to become extremely painful and tender.
Scapulothoracic bursitis and a snapping shoulder blade often develop as a result of overuse from activities that involve lifting the arms above the head, such as:
- pitching, as in baseball
- weight training
Doctors may use imaging tests, such as CT scans or MRI scans, to make a diagnosis after a physical examination. Injecting a local anesthetic and corticosteroids in the area may also help with the diagnostic procedure while relieving pain if it is present.
The plan of action for treating a snapping shoulder blade includes:
- use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs)
- changes to daily activities
- shoulder rehabilitation, including muscle strengthening exercises
Rehabilitation may take 3–6 months, but a person should continue to follow their treatment plan until they have achieved their recovery goal.
Other treatments options include:
- applying heat to the area
- iontophoresis, in which an electrical current makes it easier for the body to absorb drugs through the skin
- ultrasound therapy
- corticosteroid injections
- wearing a shoulder brace to maintain posture
If shoulder snapping does not improve with these treatments, the doctor may recommend surgery.
Arthritis can affect all the joints in the body, including those in the shoulder.
There are different types of shoulder arthritis. They include:
Generally, arthritis in the shoulder may cause:
- cracking, popping, clicking, or grinding
- a limited range of motion
Treatment for shoulder arthritis should start with a doctor’s visit to determine the cause of any shoulder pain and cracking.
The following can help ease shoulder arthritis symptoms:
- applying heat or ice to the area
- using NSAIDs
- practicing physiotherapy exercises
- making changes to daily activities
An osteochondroma is a bone tumor that can develop when the bones are growing. These tumors are noncancerous, and they can form in the shoulder.
- a painless bump near a joint
- pain during activities, if the tumor rubs against a tendon
- tingling or numbness, if the tumor is near a nerve
- changes to blood flow
Doctors use X-rays to help diagnose osteochondromas and similar issues. They may also use other imaging tests, such as MRI or CT scans.
In most cases, an osteochondroma does not require treatment. However, a doctor may recommend surgery if the osteochondroma causes pain, has a lot of cartilage, or forms near a nerve.
Seeing a medical professional when experiencing pain, particularly after an injury, is extremely important.
Successful rehabilitation is a time sensitive matter, and having professional help at an early stage can dramatically improve long term results. Likewise, following a treatment plan consistently can have significant long term benefits.
Physiotherapists can recommend exercises that people can do at home or at work, and these can take only a few minutes a day.
If cracking or popping in the shoulder causes pain, swelling, or other symptoms, see a doctor.
In many cases, it can be difficult to prevent shoulder cracking or popping. However, a person can take steps to reduce the risk of any further damage.
If there is pain or swelling, avoid overusing the shoulder joint to prevent further injury. It is especially important to avoid strenuous activities involving lots of shoulder use, such as contact sports and those that involve overhead throwing.
Rest, massage, anti-inflammatory medications, and heat can help a shoulder injury heal.
Cracking, popping, or clicking in the shoulders is generally not a cause for concern. However, if the sound occurs with pain, swelling, or other symptoms, see a doctor.
Physical therapy and home treatments often lead to recovery from a shoulder injury. If these methods are not fully effective, surgery and other treatments are available.