How to Differentiate Between Neck and Shoulder Pain

Where exactly does your neck end and your shoulder begin? How can you tell the difference between neck and shoulder pain? The distinction between the two areas isn’t always clear, and it’s often difficult for people to communicate with healthcare professionals about the specifics of their aches.

If you’re feeling a pain that you can’t quite pinpoint, it is time to learn how to assess your pain. Let’s look at a few key pieces of information that will help you get started in your treatment plan.

How to Pinpoint Neck vs Shoulder Pain

Identifying the source of pain isn’t always as simple as it might seem, especially when it comes to determining shoulder vs neck pain. This wide area is connected by multiple nerve pathways that are closely linked. For this reason, your brain can have trouble deciding if your neck or shoulder is hurting. This is complicated by what professionals call referred pain, which happens when your brain can’t trace back to its exact point of origin. 

Is It Shoulder Pain or Neck Pain?

In our Singapore offices, people often come in complaining about shoulder pain which turns out to be a neck problem. Likewise, people complain about neck pain when the issue lies in their shoulders. These distinctions are important because your successful treatment depends on properly identifying the problem.

How Can You Tell the Difference Between Neck and Shoulder Pain?

So, how is it possible to figure out how to differentiate between neck and shoulder pain? The answer lies in the anatomy of the trapezius muscle.

Your trapezius muscle looks like a large triangle with two identical halves that sit side-by-side to form a trapezoid shape. This is the most extensive muscle in your body and it’s divided into parts. To understand the muscle and identify pain within it, it’s helpful to realise that it’s separated into an upper, lower, and middle part. Each part has its unique role.

Your upper trapezius is the smallest part of the trapezius. The upper trapezius begins at the base of the neck and goes down over the tops of the shoulders. This is the part of the muscle that you use to lift your arms, rotate your neck and head, or shrug your shoulders.

The middle trapezius is directly under the upper trapezius and extends across your shoulders. This is the part of the muscle that you use to pull your arms back, reach your arms behind you, and stabilise your shoulders when you move your arms. 

Finally, your lower trapezius starts from your shoulder blades and goes down the middle of your back in a V shape. You use this muscle to un-shrug your shoulder and stabilise your spine as you twist and bend.

Understanding your trapezius will help you differentiate between neck and shoulder pain. Notice, for example, that when you are dealing with pain in your neck, you’ll feel it at the top of your shoulders over the trapezius muscle. Meanwhile, when you have pain in your back, you will feel it more in your upper arm.

What Causes Shoulder Pain

In many cases, shoulder pain is caused by a rotator cuff injury. This group of tendons and muscles stabilise your shoulder joint. Wear and tear affect the rotator cuff and it’s quite easily torn. These rotator cuff injuries are aggravated by the fact that your body will naturally compensate for the injury. You’ll use different muscles in place of your rotator cuff. These unnatural movements will cause even more pain.

How to Tell If Your Shoulder Is Injured

If you think that you might have a rotator cuff injury, there are a few signs and symptoms that will help you identify the issue. Here are some of the common signs that your shoulder is injured:

  • The pain is dull rather than sharp.
  • You feel the pain in your upper arm or shoulder.
  • It hurts when you reach over your head or behind your back.
  • Your upper arm aches but not past your elbow.
  • You feel better when you rest your arm.
  • The pain continues all night.

How to Relieve Shoulder Pain

When it comes to common shoulder aches and pains, it is best to avoid activities such as HIIT workouts, F45, yoga and pilates. Here are a few good strategies that will get you started on the path to being pain-free.

  • Rest and avoid any activities that cause pain.
  • Have a routine of physical therapy exercises.
  • Apply ice treatment on your shoulder during the day and before bed.
  • Take anti-inflammatory medication as needed.
  • Get cortisone injections as recommended by your doctor.
  • Visit an Osteopath or a Chiropractor who can treat pain in your neck and shoulders

If these measures aren’t enough to relieve pain, it’s important to take a closer look. Often at this stage, a doctor will order an MRI of your shoulder. This will show if there are more serious issues, like a torn rotator cuff. If there is a tear, shoulder surgery may be needed.

In cases where we see arthritis or nerve issues, a doctor may send you to a spinal specialist who will then go through a neurological examination, imaging tests, and other exams.

If you’re experiencing frozen shoulder or rotator cuff injuries, follow these exercises by Ray of Health to relieve your pain.

How to Tell If Your Neck Is Injured

There are eight pairs of cervical nerves in your neck. With daily head movements, aches and pains are common in the neck. In fact, by age 65, the majority of people have some amount of symptomatic arthritis.

Often this neck pain is confused with back pain but a medical professional can confirm the source of the pain by examining your range of motion and testing your strength in a series of zones. Sometimes the pain is checked for by injecting a local anaesthetic into an area and seeing if it relieves the pain.

If you think that you may be dealing with neck pain, there are a few key symptoms to look for:

  • The pain goes from your shoulder blade to your neck.
  • Pain sometimes continues down past your elbow and even into your hand.
  • Rather than dull, the pain is burning, stabbing, or feels electric.
  • It continues to hurt even when you are resting.
  • The pain radiates through your arm when you twist or extend your neck.
  • Feels better when you are resting your neck.

Looking to relieve your neck pain? These exercises by Ray of Health are created to relieve neck pain and discomfort.

How to Relieve Discomfort from Shoulder Pain

Whether you have chronic pain in your shoulder, your neck, or both, it’s crucial not to ignore it. There is a range of options that will boost your quality of life and reduce pain.

  • Using physical therapy to improve your shoulder mobility and boost your strength.
  • Taking anti-inflammatory medication.
  • Regular ice, heat, and massage therapy.
  • Take anti-inflammatory medication as needed.
  • Get cortisone injections as recommended by your healthcare professional.

Consult a Reliable Orthopaedic Doctor in Singapore

Ready to get started on the path to living a pain-free life? It’s time to have an expert assess your issue and differentiate between neck and shoulder pain. Once you have a diagnosis, you can move forward with the right treatment plan.

Meanwhile, you can check out the differences between a Chiropractor and an Orthopaedic and the difference between physiotherapy and orthopaedic surgery before getting a suitable treatment.

Why live with pain another day? If you have any questions or seeking help from a orthopaedics specialist in Singapore, call us at +65 6235 8781, connect on Whatsapp at +65 8028 4572, or email Prefer a face-to-face chat? Schedule an appointment today.

RoH - Call to action - Contact us 2

If you’d like to find us directly, visit one of our clinics below:

Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre

3 Mount Elizabeth, #13-14

Singapore 228510

Mount Alvernia Hospital

820 Thomson Road

Medical Centre D #05-60

Singapore 574623

Check out our other articles: