How to Differentiate Between Neck and Shoulder Pain

Dr. James - Orthopaedic Surgeon in Singapore

Medically reviewed by Dr. James Tan

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 it. Let’s look at a few key pieces of information that will help you get started in your treatment plan.

How to Pinpoint Shoulder vs Neck Pain?

Identifying the source 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 on the area that 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 ache which turns out to be a neck problem. Likewise, people complain about neck soreness 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?

So, how is it possible to figure out how to differentiate between neck and shoulder ache? 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 it 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.

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 pinpoint your problem. Notice, for example, that when you are dealing with an aching neck, you’ll feel it at the top of your shoulders over the trapezius muscle. Meanwhile, when you have a sore back, you will feel it more in your upper arm.

What Causes Shoulder Pain

In many cases, shoulder pain is caused by a shoulder dislocation or rotator cuff injury. This group of tendons and muscles stabilise your 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 discomfort.

You might be interested in the shoulder dislocation treatment plans that our orthopaedic clinic has to offer.

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 ache is dull rather than sharp.
  • You feel the ache 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 achining continues all night.

How to Relieve Shoulder Pain

When it comes to common aches, it is best to avoid activities such as HIIT workouts, deadlifts, 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 ache
  • Have a routine of physical therapy exercises.
  • Apply ice treatment during the day and before bed.
  • Take anti-inflammatory medication as needed.
  • Get cortisone injections or PRP treatment as recommended by your doctor.
  • Visit an Osteopath or a Chiropractor

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

In cases where we see lower back pain 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.

You might also be interested in exercises to strengthen your core.

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

If you think that you may be dealing with neck ache or experiencing whiplash injury, 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 ache? These exercises by Ray of Health are created to relieve neck ache and discomfort.

How to Relieve Discomfort

When you have chronic pain, it’s crucial not to ignore it. There is a range of options that will boost your quality of life and reduce that painful feeling.

  • Using physical therapy to improve your shoulder mobility and boost your strength.
  • Taking anti-inflammatory medication.
  • Regular ice, heat, and massage therapy. Heat therapy is also especially helpful for knee arthritis while ice therapy helps with ankle sprains.
  • Take anti-inflammatory medication as needed.
  • Get cortisone injections as recommended by your healthcare professional.

If ice therapy does not alleviate the pain in your ankles, you might wish to consider speaking with our ankle injury doctors for treatment.

Consult a Reliable Orthopaedic Doctor in Singapore

Sports injuries can lead to different types of ache and discomfort, including neck and shoulder ache. If you’ve experienced a sports injury, seeking professional sports injury treatment is crucial for a quick and effective recovery. One common sports injury is golfer’s elbow, a condition that causes inflammation in the inner side of the elbow.

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 ache. Once you have a diagnosis, you can move forward with the right treatment plan. At Ray of Health, we also offer treatment plans for wrist injuries and torn meniscus treatment.

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 orthopaedic doctor for treatment in Singapore, schedule an appointment today.


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

Camden Medical

1 Orchard Boulevard, #09-06

Singapore 248649

Mount Alvernia Hospital

820 Thomson Road

Medical Centre D #05-60

Singapore 574623

Check out our other articles:

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Dr. James - Orthopaedic Surgeon in Singapore

About the Author

Dr James Tan is a highly skilled orthopaedic surgeon who has more than 10 years of experience in sports surgery and exercise medicine. He is a member of the elite Asian Shoulder and Elbow Group and a founding member of the Singapore Shoulder and Elbow Surgery Society.

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