Shoulder Popping, Clicking and Cracking: What Does It Mean?

Shoulder Popping, Clicking and Cracking: What Does It Mean?

Is your shoulder clicking when you move it? Or do you experience a popping noise when you lift your arm? What causes this noise, and should you be worried?

Here we explain what you should look out for and what you can do to prevent and treat damage to your shoulder.

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Caroline Jones Physiotherapist
Medically reviewed by 



Content:

  1. Anatomy of the shoulder joint

  2. Conditions that can lead to crepitus in the shoulder

  3. When are these symptoms likely to occur?

  4. Treatment for clicking, cracking and popping in the shoulder



Grinding and clicking in a joint is often referred to as crepitus. It is thought that the sound comes from the formation of tiny gas bubbles in the fluid within the joint (the synovial fluid.) It can happen in any of your joints but is most common in your knees, fingers, and, of course, your shoulders.

So why is your shoulder clicking? What could it mean? Read on to learn more about your shoulder anatomy, some common and not so common shoulder conditions. We'll then teach you some strengthening exercises and stretches, so you can help prevent your shoulders from going snap, crackle, and pop.

Looking for a solution that can help you get rid of the sounds or pain in the shoulder? Try Injurymap's rehabilitation app

Anatomy of the shoulder joint

Your shoulder (in anatomical terms called the glenohumeral joint) is a ball and socket joint. A ball and socket mechanism enables the joint to have a high degree of flexibility and an extensive range of motion.

Similar anatomy can be seen in your hip joint. The upper arm bone, known as the humerus, connects into the socket of your shoulder blade (the scapula), which runs from your back around to just below your collarbone (your clavicle.) The arm is also held in place by ligaments, the tough, fibrous connective tissue that links bones together. A soft cartilage cup known as the labrum lines the socket and helps to hold your arm in place.

The basic anatomy of the shoulder

Shoulder ligaments are relatively weak and flexible. This laxity (looseness) allows for maximum mobility in the joint, which can move in many directions. However, it comes at the cost of stability. The joint relies on the muscles of the rotator cuff for support. These are the four muscles of the rotator cuff:

  1. Supraspinatus – which sits above the top edge of your shoulder blade

  2. Infraspinatus – positioned below the top edge of your shoulder blade

  3. Subscapularis – covers the underside of your shoulder blade

  4. Teres minor – a narrow muscle that runs from the outside edge of the shoulder blade up to the back of the upper arm bone

The rotator cuff muscles

These muscles often work in conjunction with each other. Due to them being your prime shoulder movers, they're prone to overuse and injury.

Muscle tendons can flick as they move over the bone, causing a popping noise. Tendons are the string-like structures that connect muscles to their supporting bone. When the tendons move over bone, they can click like guitar strings. If you have suddenly started experiencing one of these audible symptoms, then it may be worth having your shoulder assessed. Changes like this can be a sign that you've damaged one of the muscles or its tendons, so it may be worth having it investigated.

Clicking, popping, and cracking can be a nuisance. It can also be slightly worrying if you don't know what the cause is. The good news is that it's usually pain-free and harmless. But you should be aware that even though it might be painless initially, the sound could be indicative of a more severe shoulder condition. If you do start to experience pain along with crepitus, then be extra aware, as it may be a sign of a more severe injury or condition.

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If your shoulder impairment is left untreated, it can turn into the chronic condition known as a "frozen shoulder". In the medical field, this is called adhesive capsulitis, the shoulder capsule and joint become stuck with a glue-like inflammatory process. It can be quite painful and take a long time to recover.

Other signs that you should be looking out for are swelling, redness, or heat radiating from the shoulder. These symptoms can be a sign of something more serious occurring, such as an infection. If this is the case, you might want to consult a doctor.

Conditions that can lead to crepitus in the shoulder

Osteoarthritis

As you get older, the shock-absorbing cartilage in your joints wears down in a condition known as osteoarthritis. The joint loses the amount of cushioning in between the bones. Osteoarthritis can cause grinding noises - the sound of the bones rubbing against each other. The increase in friction can cause ache-like pain and stiffness. An added complication can be that nerves can become compressed in the decreased joint space.

Osteoarthritis is a widespread complaint that comes with age and overuse of a joint. It's more prevalent if you work in an occupation involving repetitive strain to the shoulder and arms, e.g., painting, hairdressing, and farming. Ways to combat arthritis include maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding high impact exercises, and strengthening the surrounding muscles.

Rotator cuff tears

The muscles of the rotator cuff are put under large amounts of stress and are quite prone to tearing. They can tear partially or entirely as a result of age or general wear and tear. Once torn, the uneven surfaces can rub together, causing cracking noises. Pain can be quite sharp on movement.

Rotator cuff tear

Bursitis

Within the shoulder complex, there is a small fluid-filled sac, known as the bursa, that sits within the joint capsule. The bursa acts as a cushion and a shock absorber, helping the joint slide together upon movement. If it becomes inflamed through trauma or repetitive stress or strain, then it is known as bursitis.

With any swelling, there's less space for everything to move, and structures can become tight, causing grinding. If you suspect bursitis, then try and avoid any aggravating movements to give it a chance to settle. You should also practice the standard anti-inflammatory protocol (ice and medication if needed).

Unhealed fracture

If you have a recent fracture, e.g., in your ribs or shoulder blade, that has not healed properly, it can produce clicking symptoms. In this case, the bone fragments moving against each other are to blame. This situation requires medical assessment, as you may require surgical fixation.

Labral tear

A tear to the labrum, which is the cartilage holding the shoulder together, can also result in crepitus. Age, overuse, or trauma can all cause the labrum to tear. However, these are often quite painful and may need surgical repair if pain persists. This pain is usually felt deep in the joint.

Labral tear

When are these symptoms likely to occur?

Crepitus most commonly occurs when your arms are lifted, especially above shoulder height. When you perform pushing movements, especially at the gym such as push-ups, bench press, or side raises. Other everyday activities can cause these noises as well, including throwing a ball or even something as simple as putting a handbag over your shoulder. If the frequency of your shoulder cracking increases suddenly or it occurs in the presence of pain, then it's advised to seek medical consultation.

Imaging and Investigations

Sometimes it may be necessary to undergo tests to investigate the cause of the dysfunction further. Common investigations you may encounter include:

  • Ultrasound
  • MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging)
  • X-rays
  • Blood tests to assess for the presence of any infection
  • Antibody test to check for the presence of any auto-immune disorder.

These will be ordered by your GP if deemed necessary. While uncommon, it may be useful to help eliminate these as a cause.

Treatment for clicking, cracking and popping in the shoulder

When you first visit a physiotherapist, they will conduct an assessment testing your range of motion across the joint as well as muscle strength. During your assessment, you will have different movements tested, helping to determine the exact type and location of pain and grade the injury.

If you sustained an injury or are experiencing pain, you should follow the RICER principle right away - for at least the first 48 hours.

  • Rest
  • Ice
  • Compression
  • Elevate
  • Referral

The goal of RICER is to try and minimize any swelling and inflammation. It will also reduce any pain you may be experiencing. As much as swelling is painful and irritating, it's your body's way of immobilizing and protecting the injured joint.

Once the initial acute phase of 48-72 hours has passed, you can progress to the recovery and rehabilitation phases of treatment.

Other additional treatments you might find useful include:

  • Yoga can be beneficial in several ways. It's well-known for improving your flexibility as most yoga enthusiasts are quite pretzel-like. But it can also improve strength and stability around your joints. Its other relevant benefits are posture improvement and assistance with breathing and relaxation as well. These are important for stress-related shoulder and neck pain.

  • Foam rolling is a method of releasing tight muscles. Rollers are inexpensive to purchase and it's a treatment you can do at home.

  • Massage is a very popular treatment to loosen up tight muscles. Just be aware that the muscles will become tense again if the underlying issue isn't resolved.

  • Heat packs or gels can be useful in relieving pain and muscle tension.

  • Strapping of shoulders with sports tape or the use of braces can provide support for sports and other activities. In the long term, it is better to strengthen the muscles themselves rather than relying on tape. You can also use tape for postural cues, the tape is applied to hold your shoulder in the desired position, and if you move, e.g., slouch against it, the tape pulls.

Strengthening and stretching exercises

    Exercise is key to improving your shoulder strength and stability. By increasing the stability around your shoulder, it is easier to hold the joint in place, reducing the occurrence of clicking, cracking, or popping. Injurymap provides you with an extensive library of exercises for both strengthening and mobility, complete with instructional videos. Get started on your training program for your shoulder, or check out the list of samples below.

  1. Shoulder pull
    5 reps

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    Physios usually describe this exercise as a "scapula setting." This means putting your shoulder blade in its optimal position. How your shoulder blade is positioned when you're standing still, but especially when you're moving your arm and lifting any load, can have a significant impact on shoulder function. It is important to ensure that your shoulder blades are in the correct position by bringing them down and back, drawing them towards the spine.

    • Relax your shoulders by letting them fall down.
    • Retract your shoulders so that your shoulder blades are brought together.
    • Hold the position for 10 seconds and then return to the starting position.
    • Perform 5 repetitions.
  2. Standing infraspinatus exercise (medium resistance)
    10 reps x 3 sets

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    Strengthening these muscles helps to hold your shoulder blade in the best position during movement. By holding an end of a resistance band in each hand, rotate your target wrist away from your body. Keep your elbows tucked in at your sides.

    • Stand up.
    • Use a mediumresistance exercise band.
    • Keep your arm tight to the body and pull your shoulder slightly back.
    • Bend your elbow 90 degrees, and place the exercise band around your hand and hold it with the other hand.
    • Now turn the arm outwards so that the exercise band is tightened.
    • Perform 3 sets of 8 repetitions with each arm.
  3. Sitting shoulder exercise III
    12 reps x 3 sets

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    Strengthening in an overhead position is important, as this is where the joint is most vulnerable. Perform outward rotations with a resistance band with your arm raised and supported on a table. You can adapt most shoulder exercises into an overhead position to improve your strength in this range.

    • Support your arm on a table.
    • Lift the arm 45 degrees away from the body and 30 degrees in front of the body.
    • Keep your elbow bent at 60 degrees.
    • Fixate the exercise band with the opposite hand and hold it at 90 degrees approx.
    • midway between the legs.
    • Pull the exercise band upwards with the arm that supports the table so that the exercise band is tightened.
    • Perform 3 sets of 12 repetitions with each arm.
  4. Trapezius stretch
    30 sec.

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    By tilting your ear towards your shoulder, you will feel a stretch through the side of your neck. These muscles often become tight in office workers, people who spend long periods using computers, tablets, and smartphones. They can also be tight in people who lift heavy weights at the gym or have a strenuous, manual job.

    • Sit on a chair with your back straight.
    • Place one hand over your head on the back of your neck so that your forehead is resting on your forearm.
    • You should use the other hand to fixate your shoulder by holding onto the edge of the chair.
    • Turn your head towards the same side as the raised arm.
    • Pull the head diagonally forward to the side and feel it stretching down towards the shoulder blade.
    • It should not hurt in the direction that you bend your head.
    • Hold the stretch for 30 seconds and then repeat the stretch with your head bent to the opposite side.
  5. Lattissimus dorsi stretch
    30 sec. x 3 sets

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    These are the large, wing-shaped muscles that span each side of your back. To stretch them, reach one arm up (you can even hold onto something such as a high shelf or rail) and sink into the stretch. This technique is called tractioning, as you are using your body weight to facilitate the stretch. For extra intensity, lean towards the other side, and you'll feel a greater stretch.

    • Stand with your arms over your head.
    • Grab one of your elbows with the hand of the opposite arm.
    • Lift your arms and push the elbow backwards as far as possible, and slightly towards the other shoulder.
    • Hold the stretch for 30 seconds and perform 3 repetitions with each arm.
  6. Stretch between shoulder blades
    30 sec. x 3 sets

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    Although located at the front of your chest, these muscles can have a significant impact on shoulder and back pain. If the pecs are tight, they can pull and rotate your shoulders forward. Find a wall or a doorway and place your hand and forearm on the surface. Rotate away from the wall, so that you feel a stretch in the front of your chest.

    • Sit on a chair.
    • Merge your fingers and place them under one knee.
    • Relax your shoulders, push your leg towards the floor and feel the stretch between your shoulder blades.
    • Then do the same with the opposite leg.
    • Hold the stretch for 30 seconds and perform 3 repetitions with each leg.

Clicking and other noises in the shoulder can be completely harmless in most cases. If you're not sure, seek a second opinion. By strengthening your shoulders using the exercises above and others just like them on Injurymap, you'll ensure adequate stability and reduce the risk of injury. Best of luck!

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About the author

Caroline Jones is a physiotherapist, personal trainer, and qualified lymphoedema therapist. Having sustained a severe back injury herself and undergoing spinal surgery and rehab, she understands firsthand the benefits of using exercise as medicine and is passionate about getting patients moving.