Shoulder snapping or popping is a very common issue— it is so common that this is one of the most frequently searched topics on my website. I see between 5-10 patients a week who are simply in my office because the want to know – Why my shoulder snaps and pops?
The shoulder is a very complex joint composed of bone, cartilage, ligaments, tendons, and two different linings we call the synovium and the bursa. For more information on the anatomy or structures of the shoulder check out this section on shoulder anatomy. If any of these structures are injured, the smoothly functioning shoulder can pop, snap or click. These “injuries” can be simply due to everyday use, chronic repetitive stress of sports or because of a significant trauma, fall or accident.
Should I be worried if my shoulder pops?
Most of the time the clicking or snapping is due to everyday use and changes that occur naturally within our joints. As we age this causes some of the surfaces to roughen —thus when they rub against one another they will snap click or pop within the shoulder. In the vast majority of circumstances snapping or clicking within the shoulder is not an issue to worry about, nor is it a problem you need to worry about. There are many different tissues in our shoulder that can click or pop as they roll on one another. Painless clicking and popping usually does not require any treatment at all.
Clicking or popping in shoulder may also start immediately, or soon after an injury. That does not necessarily mean that you have sustained a “significant” injury. It usually means that the tissues inside the shoulder are swollen or inflamed from the injury, and they are clicking or catching and popping as they move against the other structures in the shoulder.
There are a few times when popping or snapping in particular (not clicking) could signify a problem. If your shoulder was injured and is now sliding in and out of place (instability), it may snap or pop. If the rotator cuff was injured or torn, or if the labrum of the shoulder was torn (see the shoulder anatomy video) your shoulder may also snap or pop.
Painful clicking or popping of the shoulder.
If you have painful popping or snapping of your shoulder, then there are many possible reasons why…..
Some conditions that will make a shoulder snap or pop include:
- The shoulder is similar to a golf ball sitting on a golf tee. Imagine that the golf tee has a rubber washer sitting around the edge. That is exactly what the labrum is in the shoulder. It is a rim of tissue around the socket of the shoulder. It serves as an attachment for the ligaments, and it helps the ball of the shoulder stay in position. If the labrum or cartilage in the shoulder is torn a result of a single traumatic event or repetitive stress (pitching), then it may be separating from the bone or becoming caught in shoulder and causing a pop or a snap.
If the rotator cuff tendons are injured then there is a loose edge within the shoulder that can catch on other ligaments or structures in the shoulder. This may lead to painful snapping or popping too.
If the shoulder ligaments were injured from an acute injury or from repetitive stress, the shoulder may have become loose and is dislocating. This can lead the ball of the shoulder to slide up or over the edge of the socket. When the ball then falls back into place it may cause snapping or popping. This section on shoulder dislocations delves further into detail on shoulder instability.
Loose bodies or debris
ArthritisArthritis, by definition is the loss of cartilage or the cushioning on the ends of our bones. If the cartilage is rough, thinning or absent, the surfaces of the shoulder will be rough and causing clicking, snapping and popping.
Rest assured that the vast majority of shoulder snapping or clicking is *normal*. If you have pain, or if you are concerned –or certainly if your snapping or popping started after an injury — an evaluation by a sports medicine trained orthopedist may be able to put your worst fears to rest.