Snapping shoulder

Shoulder snapping and poppingShoulder 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 they 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.     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. The most common cause of rotator cuff related pain and popping is rotator cuff tendinosis 

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 majority of circumstances snapping or clicking of the shoulder is not an issue to worry about.    Painless clicking and popping usually does not require any treatment at all. Once I see you for your shoulder examination many of you have tried various remedies.  I have seen many different shoulder compression sleeves. I’ve seen many of you try Glucosamine ,  and Hyaluronic Acid to try and “smooth” things out. Additionally, many of you have tried Tart Cherry Juice as a natural anti-inflammatory.

On the other hand, clicking or popping of shoulder may also soon after an injury.  That might mean that you have sustained a “significant” injury. There are occasions when popping or snapping could signify a problem in your shoulder.

  • If your shoulder was injured and it  is now sliding in and out of place (instability), it may snap or pop.
  • If the rotator cuff was injured or torn, the torn edge could snap or pop. Or…
  • If the labrum of the shoulder was torn,  your shoulder may also snap or pop.
  • A piece of cartilage has torn loose and you have a “loose body” getting caught in the shoulder.
  • If the snapping is in the back of the shoulder, it could be an issue with your shoulder blade, or scapula.

Should we be Icing Injuries ? – latest from the blog.


Painful clicking or popping of the shoulder.

Some conditions that will make a shoulder snap or pop include:

Labral Tears or SLAP lesions 

Shoulder Dislocations

This is a picture showing a labrum tear with exposed bone. The metal probe is resting on the labrum.

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.   Click here to learn more about labral tears.

Repair of labrum to stop shoulder dislocations

This is the same labral tear once it has been repaired and stitched back to the bone.

Rotator Cuff Tears

Larger rotator cuff tearIf 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. Click here to help determine if you have a rotator cuff tear?   Click here to learn more about rotator cuff tears. 

Shoulder Dislocations

Shoulder DislocationIf 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.  For more information. Click here to learn more about shoulder dislocations



Loose Bodies 

Loose bodies can cause shoulder snapping and poppin

This is the picture of a loose body in the shoulder and can serve as an obvious case of popping or catching.


Arthritis, 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.

Notice that the cartilage here is literally peeling off the bone underneath. These flaps or pieces can cause clicking 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.


For more information on the anatomy or structures of the shoulder check out this section on shoulder anatomy.


Video on Causes of Shoulder Snapping or Popping