November 30, 2021

When should I see a shoulder doctor?


It can be hard to know exactly what to do following a shoulder injury. Should you go to the emergency room, urgent care, or specialized shoulder doctor?

Your next steps for aching shoulder pain depend on the symptoms of the injury. Some injuries are more serious than others and require immediate medical attention while others can wait for a doctor’s visit.

Read on to hear from Dr. Corey Kendall, an OrthoIndy shoulder specialist, as he explains different shoulder pain causes and shares when they may require a trip to a shoulder doctor.

Treatment for serious shoulder problems

It’s time to go to an urgent care or the emergency room for a shoulder injury if you experience the following:

  • Joint deformity
  • Immobility
  • Severe pain

“Emergency room visits are primarily for patients with deformity or severe pain after an injury,” says Dr. Kendall.

“The urgent care should be utilized when there is a significant problem and the timeframe for seeing a physician is too long.”

If you don’t have a deformity or severe pain following an injury, you may not need immediate care. However, if you have any of the symptoms below, you should schedule an appointment with a shoulder doctor called an orthopedic specialist.

  • Difficulty raising your arm
  • Significant stiffness
  • Pain that wakes you at night

“In the absence of the more severe symptoms above, a primary care physician is a reasonable starting point,” says Dr. Kendall.

“Most likely, they would be able to start a non-surgical treatment program. If they thought there was a more significant problem, they could use tests to make the appropriate referral to a shoulder specialist.”

Make an appointment with a shoulder specialist

Pain relief options with a shoulder doctor

After a physical examination, a shoulder doctor will use imaging tests, such as X-rays, to pinpoint the cause of your shoulder pain. The physician may start with non-surgical methods to treat the injury.

These include:

  • Rest and avoiding activities involving the shoulder
  • Physical therapy and exercise
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen
  • Corticosteroid injections, which temporarily reduce inflammation and pain

Learn more about OrthoIndy shoulder treatments

If surgery is required, it will usually involve one of the procedures below:


In an arthroscopy procedure, a shoulder specialist inserts a small camera through a small incision to see your joint. They then use other instruments to remove any damage and make repairs.

Shoulder replacement

In a shoulder replacement procedure, a shoulder surgeon replaces the damaged, arthritic joint with a prosthesis.

“The most common way that shoulder pain is treated is without surgery, particularly if there are no tears or fractures,” says Dr. Kendall.

“Arthroscopic surgery is the most common surgical intervention. This procedure is used to treat multiple problems, including rotator cuff tears, labral tears and subacromial impingement syndrome.”

Shoulder pain exercises

Your shoulder doctor will likely recommend general strengthening exercises to help with shoulder pain after treatment. However, physical therapy is needed to determine what exercises are right for you.

It also helps athletes who suffer from shoulder injuries in sports like thrower’s shoulder get back into the game or return to their daily activities

Watch OrthoIndy’s shoulder physical therapy videos

“An effective exercise program is often critical to a good recovery,” says Dr. Kendall.

“I utilize physical therapy for my patients right after surgery and then transition to an at-home exercise program.”

Find out what’s really causing your shoulder pain

If your shoulder pain causes you to miss out on normal day-to-day activities, we can help. Request an appointment online or call OrthoIndy at 317.802.2000 to book an appointment with one of our shoulder specialists.

If your shoulder injury or condition is recent, you can walk right into one of our OrthoIndy Urgent Care locations for immediate care. For rehabilitation and physical therapy, no referral is needed to see one of our physical therapists.

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