Shoulder Popping With No Pain: Good News or Bad News?

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So you have shoulder popping with no pain. That’s something to be ignored, right? It certainly seems harmless enough—after all, there’s no pain, just that annoying popping when you move your shoulder this way or that. But just because there’s no pain doesn’t mean there’s no problem. There’s actually good news and bad news here.

The good news? All that shoulder popping really could be no big deal. The bad news? That popping could be slowly chewing up your shoulder joint, and it may be a warning sign that arthritis is on its way.

So how can you tell the difference, and what can you do about it? Let’s start by taking a look at the shoulder.

The Shoulder and Its Ligaments

The shoulder is a ball-and-socket joint where the head of the humerus (the long bone of the upper arm) forms the ball that rests in a shallow depression of the scapula called the glenoid. There are ligaments (e.g., capsular, coracohumeral, coracoacromial, etc.) that hold the shoulder in place and provide stability by keeping movement precise and controlled.

These ligaments can be stretched by an injury without breaking, and this can lead to loose ligaments. When the ligaments become loose, the shoulder can move too far backward or forward. This extra movement is called instability, and even shoulder popping with no pain can be a symptom of this instability (1).

This instability can occur due to a variety of reasons: trauma causing shoulder dislocation, degeneration of the joint with aging, wear and tear, and so on. Injuries to the ligaments can actually affect the entire shoulder, and if left unaddressed, they can lead to other shoulder issues, such as shoulder labral tears and early shoulder arthritis and, eventually, pain.

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Is Shoulder Popping With No Pain Good or Bad?

Regrettably, for the most part, your orthopedic surgeon or family doctor has not been trained to identify these types of instability issues. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: they’ve been taught to ignore them! This is despite the evidence that unstable joints can lead to the quicker onset of arthritis.

Since it’s unlikely your doctors will be much help here, how can you tell which type of shoulder popping you have? Do you have the it’s-no-big-deal shoulder popping, or do you have the it’s-chewing-up-my-shoulder-joint shoulder popping? You’re going to need to dig into your history a bit.

Have you had a shoulder “separation” in the past? Has your shoulder popped out of the socket, or been dislocated, in the past? Have you had shoulder trauma, perhaps due to a car accident or sports injury, where you had significant pain and then you assumed healed because, well, there’s been no pain over the past 5, 10, or even 20 years? Think way back. If so, then this popping may be a big deal. If you’ve never had any of these past traumas, then chances are, the popping is no big deal.

What Are the Treatment Options?

If your particular shoulder popping with no pain falls in the bad news category, until there is pain, your doctor is probably not going to suggest any treatment—remember, they typically ignore these issues. However, by the time pain sets in, you may already have developed arthritis, a labral tear, or some other shoulder issue (2).

Regrettably, surgery is currently the most common way to stabilize shoulder instability, but it is invasive, there is a huge amount of downtime, and the recovery process is lengthy. However, there are newer and much less invasive ways to tighten ligaments without surgery by precisely injecting your own concentrated platelets into lax ligaments.

The upshot? If you have had shoulder injuries and now have popping in that area, then you need to have the stability of your shoulder ligaments examined. Avoiding surgery for shoulder instability shouldn’t be a problem as it is easily treatable with today’s advanced image-guided regenerative medicine injections into the loose ligaments. This is one of those situations in which the sooner the better, however, because the problem is harder to fix once arthritis sets in.

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References

(1) Glazebrook H, Miller B, Wong I. Anterior Shoulder Instability: A Systematic Review of the Quality and Quantity of the Current Literature for Surgical Treatment. Orthop J Sports Med. 2018;6(11):2325967118805983. Published 2018 Nov 16. doi:10.1177/2325967118805983

(2) Eljabu W, Klinger HM, von Knoch M. The natural course of shoulder instability and treatment trends: a systematic review. J Orthop Traumatol. 2017;18(1):1-8. doi:10.1007/s10195-016-0424-9

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Chris Centeno, MD is a specialist in regenerative medicine and the new field of Interventional Orthopedics. Centeno pioneered orthopedic stem cell procedures in 2005 and is responsible for a large amount of the published research on stem cell use for orthopedic applications. View Profile

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NOTE: This blog post provides general information to help the reader better understand regenerative medicine, musculoskeletal health, and related subjects. All content provided in this blog, website, or any linked materials, including text, graphics, images, patient profiles, outcomes, and information, are not intended and should not be considered or used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Please always consult with a professional and certified healthcare provider to discuss if a treatment is right for you.

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