history (shoulder joint)

Last reviewed 07/2023

The history for the shoulder joint should include the following enquiries:

  • pain:
    • determining the onset (acute, sub-acute, recurrent), site, nature, exacerbating and relieving factors and any associated symptoms of the pain.
      • may be referred from the cervical spine, myocardium, mediastinum or diaphragm
      • joint pain is felt anterolaterally at the insertion of deltoid from which it may radiate down the arm
      • pain on top of the shoulder may particularly suggest acromioclavicular or cervical spine disorders
    • specifically enquiring about the relationship of the pain to movement. Does it occur at rest?
    • is the shoulder pain nocturnal?
      • while nocturnal pain may be due to difficulty finding a comfortable sleeping position, consider nerve root pain, bony pain or malignancy, particularly if there is a history of cancer and/or systemic symptoms

  • stiffness

  • deformity:
    • prominence of the acromioclavicular joint or winging of the scapula

  • loss of function:
    • what activities are impaired e.g. may be difficulty reaching behind the back, combing the hair or dressing
    • what is the impact on function of the joint? Is the dominant or non-dominant arm affected?

Other issues that should be covered include (1):

  • are any other joints affected?
  • enquiring about tasks undertaken at work and sporting activities.
  • enquiring about systemic symptoms of illness (fever, night sweats, weight loss, generalised joint pains, rash, new respiratory symptoms)
  • enquiring about whether there is a past history of shoulder pain or other musculoskeletal problems - what was the response to treatment?
  • enquiring about significant co-morbidity (diabetes, stroke, cancer; respiratory, gastrointestinal, or renal disease; ischaemic heart disease)
  • checking current drug treatment and adverse drug reactions


  • (1) ARC. Management of shoulder disorders in primary care. Hands On 2008; 14;1-8.