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

Is your shoulder clicking frequently at the gym? Or perhaps you experience a popping noise when you hang the washing out. What causes this noise? Does it mean bad news for your shoulders?

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Caroline Jones Physiotherapist

Is your shoulder clicking frequently at the gym? Or perhaps you experience a popping noise when you hang the washing out. What causes this noise? Does it mean bad news for your shoulders?

Grinding and clicking in a joint is often referred to - in the medical profession - 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. A consultation with a physiotherapist may be helpful to determine if there is anything you should be concerned about. It will also help you find the most effective course of treatment.

Grinding and clicking in a joint is often referred to - in the medical profession - as crepitus. It is thought that the sound comes from the formation of tiny gas bubbles in the fluid within the joint.

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 like a bowl of Rice Bubbles.

Anatomy of the shoulder joint

Your shoulder (in anatomical terms called the glenohumeral joint) is what’s known as a ball and socket joint. A ball and socket mechanism provides the joint with the greatest degrees and directions of movement. A 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; tough, fibrous connective tissue that link 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. This is a group of four muscles:

  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 often 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. Occasionally though it might be worth taking a second look or listen to what’s going on. While it might be painless initially, it could be indicative of a more serious shoulder condition. If you do happen to experience pain along with crepitus, then you should seek advice from a medical professional or physiotherapist, as it may be a sign of a more serious injury or condition.

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.

If shoulder impairment is left untreated it can progress into a 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 from.

Other signs that you should be looking out for are any swelling, redness or heat radiating from the shoulder. This can also be a sign of something more serious occurring, such as an infection. If this is the case, you should immediately seek attention from a doctor who may need to prescribe you with antibiotics.

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 an ache-like pain and stiffness. An added complication can be that nerves can become compressed in the decreased joint space.

Arthritis is a very common 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 completely 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. You should see a physio for advice and treatment to help heal.

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 as well as 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 practise the normal 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 a medical consultation.

Imaging and Investigations

Sometimes it may be necessary to undergo tests to further investigate the cause of the dysfunction. 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 minimise any swelling and inflammation. It will also reduce any pain you may be experiencing. As much as swelling is painful and irritating, it’s actually your body’s way of immobilising 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. Your physio will be able to advise on postural education and correction as well as strengthening of your shoulder muscles to improve stability, especially in positions of vulnerability such as overhead.

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 tight muscles will reappear, 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, tape is applied to hold your shoulder in the desired position and if you move e.g. slouch against it, the tape pulls.

Strengthening 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 own personal training program for your shoulder, or check out the list of samples below.


Physios usually describe this exercise as ”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 big 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.


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.


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.


Stretching

Tight muscles tend not to work properly. If you have extra tension, especially in your shoulder muscles, they won’t move in correct alignment which can cause overuse injuries. Make sure you regularly stretch your neck, shoulders and upper back muscles to eliminate any tightness and resulting muscle imbalance. Here are some effective stretches which can be found on Injurymap. They’ll help keep your shoulders flexible and mobile.


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 of time 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.


These are the large, wing-shaped muscles which 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 down 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.


Although located at the front of your chest, these muscles can have a large 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.


The muscles in between the shoulder blades and the spine, can get very tight with lots of heavy lifting but also with prolonged time spent at a desk or slouched in front of a computer. This stretch is a great one to do whilst sitting at your desk. Interlace your fingers around one knee and stretch the muscles across your back.


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!


About the author

Caroline Jones is a physiotherapist, personal trainer and qualified lymphoedema therapist. Having sustained a serious 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.

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