AAOS Clinical Guidelines on Shoulder Pain, 2001

Posted on November 17, 2006. Filed under: Uncategorized |

Brief Summary


AAOS clinical guideline on shoulder pain.


  • American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. AAOS clinical guideline on shoulder pain: support document. Rosemont (IL): American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons; 2001. 23 p. [130 references]


This is the current release of the guideline.
The guideline will be reviewed every five years


Definitions for the type of the evidence (Type I-Type V) and the strength of the recommendations are repeated at the end of the “Major Recommendations” field.

Rotator Cuff Disorders

Definition of the problem

Rotator cuff disorders represent that spectrum of pathology (acute and chronic), which result in dysfunction of the rotator cuff. The acute manifestation (any age), may be represented by a painful condition or occasionally by a functional impairment, or both, representing the variances between soft tissue inflammation (minimal structural involvement) and irritation to the extreme of complete cuff avulsion (marked structural involvement). The chronic manifestation (more common over forty years of age), is often associated with a gradual increase in symptoms, especially in the face of repetitive activity at or above shoulder level. A precise precipitating event is identified by patients in only about one-half of the cases. Rotator cuff disease is a quite common cause of shoulder pain in patients over forty, and therefore a high index of suspicion will lead to appropriate evaluation.


The focus of initial evaluation should be determination of the structural integrity of the rotator cuff. Marked inability to raise the arm is an ominous sign and would lead to a high level of concern. However, many patients (even those with substantial structural deficits), will often demonstrate surprisingly good active range of motion. Closer examination is often needed to accurately assess rotator cuff function. Guarding (due to pain) may exaggerate the assessment of rotator cuff injury. Plain x-rays – while helpful in advanced stages – are often unrevealing (but are important to rule out reactive calcific tendinitis which can mimic an acute and severe rotator cuff process), and yet may reveal signs of chronic impingement – subacromial spurring, excrescences at the greater tuberosity. Strength testing of the rotator cuff – testing in active abduction and resisted external rotation (elbow flexed and at the side), will be helpful in assessing single tendon tears from larger tears. However, in the presence of guarding (due to pain), it may be necessary to block the pain (with an injection of local anesthetic into the subacromial space), in order to get a valid test of rotator cuff function.

Differential diagnosis would include calcific tendinitis, cervical radiculitis and viral plexopathy. (Parsonage Turner Syndrome). When clinical evaluation indicates rotator cuff integrity, treatment should employ (1) avoidance of irritating activity; (2) anti-inflammatory medications if tolerated; (3) exercises to recover and maintain passive range of motion; (4) exercises to strengthen the rotator cuff once acute symptoms are abated (“B” recommendation).

If there is minimal or only partial response to the above treatment regimen over several weeks, consideration should then be given to a subacromial injection including a mixture of local anesthetic and a short-acting corticosteroid preparation (“B” recommendation). The above regimen should then be reinstated.

Clinical Outcomes

The majority of patients presenting with rotator cuff disorders will respond favorably to the above program within several weeks. For those who do not respond, attention should be directed toward further accuracy of diagnosis and the possibility of such structural compromise that more specialized care is indicated.

Alternative Approaches

In the severely debilitated and fragile patient who cannot tolerate, nor participate, in the above regimen, it may be necessary to utilize alternative measures for pain control (such as transcutaneous nerve stimulation (TNS) unit, analgesics, topicals, etc.), and increased activity modification.

Frozen Shoulder

Definition of the problem

Frozen shoulder (adhesive capsulitis) is a condition of uncertain etiology characterized by significant restriction of both active and passive shoulder motion that occurs in the absence of another known intrinsic shoulder disorder.


The initial goal in the treatment of patients with idiopathic frozen shoulder or adhesive capsulitis is to provide pain relief. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications and analgesics are useful for this purpose. Analgesic medications used prior to the therapy will facilitate the performance of these exercises (“B” recommendation). Patients with adhesive capsulitis or idiopathic frozen shoulder should be placed on a physician directed exercise program with the goal of maintaining and regaining range of motion. This program should initially focus on stretching; after motion is regained, strengthening should be instituted (“B” recommendation). Patients who do not respond to this initial treatment over an 8-week period, may be referred to an appropriate specialist, as indicated (“B” recommendation). Patients with diabetes and hypothyroidism may require a more prolonged treatment program.

Expected Clinical Results

This program will generally result in improvement in shoulder function and decrease in shoulder pain over time.

Alternative Approaches

No treatment is an alternative approach. There has been some evidence to suggest that at 18 months following the onset of adhesive capsulitis, many patients improve without treatment. However, there can be significant residual impairment even after this amount of time has elapsed.

Glenohumeral Instability

Definition of the problem

Glenohumeral instability is a common etiology of shoulder pain in the young active patient. Glenohumeral instability occurs when excessive glenohumeral translation produces pain, apprehension, or dysfunction. Pain can be episodic, intermittent, or prolonged. “Apprehension” indicates that the patient avoids positioning the arm in such a way that may reproduce a pain or a fear of dislocation. “Dysfunction” indicates the inability of playing a sport, vocational limitations, or even interference with activities of daily living. Although apprehension and dysfunction may result in the avoidance of pain, they may also result in more restrictive impairment.


Patients with shoulder-related pain are commonly evaluated by family physicians, emergency room staff, rheumatologists, therapists, and orthopedists. Once exclusionary diagnoses are eliminated – including fracture, tumor, infection, and pain radiating from another area – the shoulder can be further examined as a source of pain.

The first-contact physician should begin the evaluation with an appropriate history. Certain generalizations can be made, but exceptions are not uncommon. Patients are often less than 40 years old and often have had a prior injury. This may include a traumatic dislocation or subluxation. Some patients describe a subjective event that has caused the arm to suddenly “fall asleep,” usually not associated with objective neurological findings — often described as dead arm syndrome (pain induced subjective paresis). Pain can be associated with arm positioning, sporting, or exertional activities, and may be related to overuse. Some patients will describe a painful click that can be reproduced with certain arm movements.

The physical examination is used to reproduce the provocative actions. Certain patients may be able to demonstrate the position that creates pain or apprehension. Patients with apprehension may be unwilling to place the arm in a provocative position. In this instance, if the physician places the arm in the provocative position, the patient will often make a facial grimace or a verbal warning (“apprehension”) to avoid this position. Translation testing can be performed in a relaxed patient by centering the humeral head on the glenoid and shifting the head in various directions (anterior, inferior, posterior) to see if it can sublux onto or over the edge. This should be compared to the contralateral extremity to identify discrepancies. Other joints can be briefly examined to determine a baseline laxity for an individual.

Radiographs can be helpful to identify glenohumeral instability. The initial imaging series may identify changes along the glenoid rim or an impression defect on the humeral head that may result due to instability.

There are several types (categories) of instability a patient may present with. For the purposes of a screening examination to provide initial treatment, the categories include:

  • Anterior Instability
  • Posterior Instability
  • Multidirectional Instability
  • Voluntary or Habitual Instability

Anterior Instability

Anterior is the most common form of glenohumeral instability. This may be the most dramatic form when a patient has presented to an emergency room with the humeral head locked in an anteriorly displaced position in front of the glenoid. When an acute anterior dislocation is reduced, the arm should be placed in a simple sling and the patient should be referred to a specialist. Patients who did not require a reduction, do not demonstrate apprehension, and have minimal pain may proceed to an exercise approach to strengthen the rotators and scapular stabilizers (“B” recommendation). Poor response to this exercise program should result in referral to a specialist.

Should this patient subsequently present with continued symptoms of recurrent anterior glenohumeral instability, symptoms may include pain (‘apprehension’) when the arm is placed in the provocative “cocked” or throwing position.

Posterior Instability

Patients are not always aware of posterior instability but can describe pain associated with activities. Some individuals can demonstrate the subluxation and/or the reduction which was once asymptomatic but now problematic. The provocative position of forward flexion and internal rotation may result in apprehension or pain. The humeral head can be displaced posterior to the glenoid in an acute posterior dislocation. Careful review of x-rays, particularly an axillary and trauma views, should avoid missing this diagnosis. Posterior dislocation should be referred to the specialist for reduction.

Multidirectional Instability

Multidirectional instability of the glenohumeral joint occurs when the humeral head subluxes symptomatically in more than one direction (including inferiorly). It is associated with increased translation posterior, anterior, or inferior (creating a ‘sulcus sign’). Many of these patients have an atraumatic onset, perform repetitive movements, and demonstrate a similar laxity in the nonpainful extremity. Certain sporting activities such as swimming, gymnastics, and overhead-throwing, may produce pain to the predisposed lax shoulder. Activity reduction, temporary sling use for support, and early rotator cuff strengthening may reduce discomfort. If muscular re-education can maintain stability, a long-term approach towards exercises should follow (“B” recommendation). If the response is poor, referral to a specialist is recommended.

Voluntary, Habitual Instability

Certain patients voluntarily sublux or dislocate their shoulder. These patients have minimal pain and may have different motives for seeking medical aid, i.e., medications, attention, etc. These patients must be educated to avoid abnormal shoulder posturing. Patients may need additional consultation for behavior modification/psychological evaluation if condition becomes disabling. The major difference between a habitual subluxer and one who reluctantly demonstrates their abnormal subluxation is the motivation of the patient. There are individuals who have the ability to sublux their shoulders, but once it becomes painful, wish it to stop. If they are unable to stop subluxing, and seek medical attention, they are not included in this habitual category. Early specialist referral may be warranted.

Other diagnoses

There may be some overlap with other diagnoses for shoulder pain. Rotator cuff tears may result from a shoulder dislocation, especially in middle-age or older age groups. Patients may demonstrate symptoms of pain, weakness, and dysfunction as a result of a traumatic dislocation due to persisting rotator cuff pathology. In this case, symptoms from both impingement and instability may be evident on physical examination. Further imaging and referral to a specialist is suggested.

Certain patients with a long-standing history of instability may develop joint pain from arthritis. A small percentage of patients with a history of glenohumeral instability may have pain at rest, nighttime pain, and limits to terminal motion. Radiographs may not be diagnostic if early in the disease pattern. Further studies may or may not be of help. Gently stretching programs, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication, heat and/or ice is the initial approach (“B” recommendation). If unsuccessful, consultation with a specialist is recommended.

Expected Clinical Results

Results depend on the type of instability and the age of the patient. Patients with joint laxity and subluxation have a greater chance of success with a non-operative approach and exercise program, than the young athlete with an acute traumatic injury.

Alternative Approaches

Upon early consultation with a specialist, the patient may be allowed to complete the season possibly with bracing.

Arthritis of the Glenohumeral Joint

Definition of the problem

Multiple causes of glenohumeral arthritis exist and attempts should be made to secure a specific cause, i.e., cuff arthropathy, arthritis of dislocation, avascular necrosis, part of a systematic disease (rheumatoid arthritis or ankylosing spondylitis), and osteoarthritis.

The shoulder stiffness from arthritis should be separated from that of frozen shoulder by history and physical examination as well as x-ray, and evaluation of the contralateral shoulder. Definition of the problem using evaluation instruments such as the 36-item short form health survey (SF36) and the Simple Shoulder Test (SST) are especially important.

Patients with arthritis of the glenohumeral joint generally are over 50 years of age with progressive pain, crepitus, and decreased range of motion. X-rays may document head flattening, irregular or narrowed joint space, and bone cysts.


Initial treatment includes activity modification, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and physical therapy to maintain motion and strength, but not to aggravate the problem (“B” recommendation). When considering long-term nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, appropriate lab tests and involvement of the primary care physician for overall medical treatment is indicated. Intraarticular corticosteroid injections are not recommended. No recommendation is made for glucosamine/chondroitin sulfate at this time.

On follow-up examination, other diagnoses are again ruled out, compliance reviewed, and the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug perhaps changed (“B” recommendation). Specialist referral is indicated if the patient is not improved or with progressive loss of motion.

Shoulder replacement may be indicated in advanced cases of painful glenohumeral arthritis with failed conservative management. Age, activity level, bone, muscles, and tendon quality, and type of arthritis are all factors in deciding whether humeral head alone or the humerus plus glenoid are replaced. Open debridement of the arthritic shoulder is not thought to be helpful.

Expected Clinical Results

Control of pain, maintenance of limited shoulder function and delay in the need for shoulder joint replacement are all expected results of initial treatment.

Alternative Approaches

Intraarticular corticosteroid injections are not recommended. No recommendation is made for glucosamine/chondroitin sulfate or viscosupplementation.

Acromioclavicular Joint Disorder

Definition of the problem

Pain or injury involving the acromioclavicular joint or lateral clavicular region characterizes acromioclavicular joint disorder. Although the majority of problems related to this anatomic area are traumatic in origin, some painful conditions may be related to atraumatic diseases.

The skeletally mature patient who presents with an injury to the acromioclavicular joint (superior shoulder pain) may be seen in an emergency room setting or in a practitioner’s office. The individual may be seen by a wide variety of physicians including, family physician, internists, neurologists or orthopedists. The first contact physician should begin the evaluation with a history and physical examination. Because the majority of injuries to the acromioclavicular joint are traumatic, radiographic assessment of the shoulder girdle should be considered. What is more controversial is the question of whether weighted x-ray views are necessary or valuable in the diagnosis and treatment of injuries to the acromioclavicular joint. The weight of the evidence (consensus) suggests such weighted radiographs are not necessary in initial evaluation except as specified below. Critical diagnoses are excluded including fractures or dislocation of the glenohumeral joint, vascular or neurologic injuries and gross deformities of the acromioclavicular joint region which suggest a high grade injury.


Isolated Osteoarthritis of the Acromioclavicular Joint

This clinical condition often manifests itself as a part of the impingement syndrome and rotator cuff disease. Isolated arthritis of this joint is commonly seen as a late sequela of Type II acromioclavicular joint injuries many years in the past. Patients have difficulty rolling on to their affected shoulder while sleeping and have difficulty reaching across their chest such as is required to cleanse their opposite axilla. Radiographs will demonstrate sclerosis of the lateral aspect of the acromion and hypertrophic spurs on the superior and inferior aspects of both the acromial and clavicular sides of the joint. Treatment should consist of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAIDs) and activity modification specifically diminishing repetitive activities (“B” recommendation). Perpetuation of symptoms should result in referral to a specialist for consideration of injection therapy of other surgical alternatives.

Osteolysis of the Clavicle

Osteolysis is a relatively uncommon condition associated with the distal clavicle. Although it is seen in females, it is distinctly more common in males and most often associated with weight lifting activities. In fact it carries the eponym “Weight lifter’s shoulder.” Pain is of insidious onset, and typical of most acromioclavicular joint pathology, patients complain of pain when rolling onto the affected shoulder while sleeping or when reaching across their body to reach their opposite axilla. Overhead lifting activities also provoke pain. There is tenderness to direct palpation over the joint and swelling is occasionally discernable. Radiographs are characteristic and usually diagnostic with resorption of the lateral clavicle, widening of the joint space and a tapered appearance of the lateral clavicle. This is a self-limiting condition and rarely if ever requires surgical treatment. Cessation of offending activities, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and patient education provide adequate treatment (“B” recommendation). Rarely intra-articular steroids may provide benefit. If symptoms persist beyond three months, referral to the specialist is indicated.

Expected Clinical Results

Many patients who rest the affected arm for two to three weeks and are dedicated to a rehabilitation program which emphasizes recovery of shoulder range of motion and strength can anticipate near full painless function of the limb. Occasionally type II injuries may have residual pain with activity but only very few acromioclavicular joint injuries find need for surgical intervention. For painful osteoarthritis of the acromioclavicular joint unresponsive to medical management, surgical excision of the lateral clavicle may be indicated.

Alternative Approaches

Some physicians may recommend earlier arthroscopic management of acromioclavicular joint injuries. Joint debridement, lateral clavicle excision and open reduction of the chronic acromioclavicular joint separation remain alternate treatment options. However the long history of satisfactory outcomes from a non-surgical approach to treatment of acromioclavicular injuries suggests that the vast majority of these conditions can be successfully treated by the first contact physician.


Definition of the problem

Fibromyalgia is characterized by the diffuse musculoskeletal pain, often presenting in the shoulder girdle. The definition from a multi-center criteria committee includes widespread pain of at least three months duration, including areas about the shoulder, i.e., trapezius at the mid-point of upper border and supraspinatus at origins above the scapular spine near the medial border. Multiple trigger points are also present usually with guarded cervical spine motion and fatigue with sleep disturbances. These trigger points are often over the trapezius muscle and near ligament or muscular attachments to the bone. Induration may be present, localized to the tender areas. Muscle strength studies have not shown weakness to conform to the patient’s perceived fatigue. Laboratory and x-ray testing are characteristically negative. The cause of fibromyalgia is unknown, but may be related to chronic muscular tension or sleep disturbance, causing chemical abnormalities. Fibromyalgia patients may have clinical depression and may require mental health consultation.


The focus of initial treatment should be on the sleep disturbance with bedtime low-dose tricyclic antidepressants. Suspension of caffeine use has been suggested (“B” recommendation). In addition, activity modification (aerobic exercise) and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are advised (“B” recommendation). A follow-up visit at four weeks to allow patient reassessment, review the diagnosis, and evaluate patient compliance is necessary. Appropriate specialist care may then be indicated.

Expected Clinical Results

The discomfort associated with fibromyalgia is generally chronic, with waxing and waning symptoms which may be affected by mood changes. Some improvement is expected following explanation of the problem to the patient, and initial treatment.

Alternative Approaches

Naturopathic medicines, dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO), massage, or chiropractic care may be chosen by the patient for this disease which is often poorly understood by the treating physician.


Aerobic exercise may be considered. Ultrasound, electrical stimulation and other modalities are commonly used by therapists but have not been proven to be beneficial.


Type of Evidence

Type I. Meta-analysis of multiple, well-designed controlled studies; or high-power randomized, controlled clinical trial.

Type II. Well-designed experimental study; or low-power randomized, controlled clinical trial.

Type III. Well-designed, non-experimental studies such as nonrandomized, controlled single-group, pre-post, cohort, time, or matched case-control series.

Type IV. Well-designed, non-experimental studies, such as comparative and correlational descriptive and case studies.

Type V. Case reports and clinical examples.

Strength of Recommendations

  1. Type I evidence or consistent findings from multiple studies of types II, III, or IV
  2. Types II, III, or IV evidence and findings are generally consistent
  3. Types II, III, or IV evidence, but findings are inconsistent
  4. Little or no systematic empirical evidence


An algorithm is provided for Universe of Adult Patients with Shoulder Pain Symptoms — Phase I.




All literature cited in the bibliography of the original guideline was reviewed and evaluated for quality of evidence. The type of evidence is identified and graded for selected recommendations (see “Major Recommendations”). Articles representing expert consensus and not meeting the rigid I-V measurement are noted to represent consensus/opinion.




  • American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. AAOS clinical guideline on shoulder pain: support document. Rosemont (IL): American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons; 2001. 23 p. [130 references]


Not applicable: The guideline was not adapted from another source.




American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons – Medical Specialty Society
American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation – Medical Specialty Society
American College of Rheumatology – Medical Specialty Society


The guideline was originally developed by a multi-professional panel led by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) Task Force on Clinical Algorithms in cooperation with the AAOS Committee on Clinical Policies, the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, the American College of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, the American College of Rheumatology, as well as individuals in other medical specialties including family practice.

The update of the guideline was completed by the AAOS Work Group with input from the American College of Emergency Physicians, the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, and the American College of Rheumatology.


American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS)


American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) Work Group


Panel Members: Original authors: Freddie Fu, MD, Chairman, Answorth Allen, MD, Clifford Colwell, MD, Evan Flatow, MD, Keith Watson, MD, John Brems, MD, W. Benjamin Kibler, MD, Jeffrey Saal, MD

Phase I Revision Panel: Edward Self, MD, Chairman, John Brems, MD, Jeffrey Abrams, MD, Frank Cordasco, MD, Keith Watson, MD, Kenneth Butters, MD


Electronic copies: Available from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons Web site.

Print copies: Available from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, 6300 North River Road, Rosemont, IL 60018-4262. Telephone: (800) 626-6726 (800 346-AAOS); Fax: (847) 823-8125; Web site: www.aaos.org.


The following is available:

  • Universe of adult patients with shoulder pain symptoms — Phase I. Rosemont (IL): American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons; 2001. 4 p.

Electronic copies: Available in Portable Document Format (PDF) from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons Web site.

Print copies: Available from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, 6300 North River Road, Rosemont, IL 60018-4262. Telephone: (847) 823-7186; (800) 346-AAOS. Fax: (847) 823-8125. Web site: www.aaos.org.



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