Shoulder Popping When Rotating? What’s Normal (And What’s Not)

Baseball’s World Series begins today, and shoulder injuries have impacted the lineups of multiple teams throughout the playoffs. Not all shoulder injuries or shoulder pain are the same. Whether you’re a pro athlete or not, pain-free shoulder function is vital and qualified evaluation is the first step in feeling and living well. The good news is that shoulder popping when rotating your arm is often perfectly normal and doesn’t necessarily indicate a bigger problem. The next time your shoulder joint makes a popping noise, ask yourself these questions: “Why does my shoulder pop when I rotate it?” “Is there pain?” “Does my shoulder feel weak?” Let’s explore the possible causes that answer these questions as well as treatment and prevention options for noisy shoulder joints.

The Anatomy Of Your Shoulder

To understand why your shoulder pops when rotating or lifting your arm, you first need to know the anatomy of your shoulder. Known as the glenohumeral joint, the shoulder is a ball and socket joint capable of multidirectional movement. This complex joint is composed of muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, cartilage, and bursae. Any of these structures can be easily injured, over-used, or degraded with age.

The main shoulder joint consists of the humerus bone (the upper arm bone) and the scapula bone (the shoulder blade.) Four muscles, collectively called the rotator cuff, provide the shoulder and shoulder blade movement. Ligaments and tendons connect bone to bone and bone to muscle, respectively. Bursae are fluid-filled sacs that provide lubrication to the joint, and cartilage (labrum) holds everything in place.

Shoulder Popping Noises Without Pain

The popping, clicking, or crackling sound you hear when you move your shoulder is called crepitus, and it is usually harmless. Popping sounds in shoulders may have causes that aren’t due to underlying diseases. Common reasons for experiencing shoulder popping when rotating, lifting, or performing other shoulder movements without pain include:

  • Aging
  • Long-term immobility
  • Old fractures and injuries
  • Idiopathic noise (shoulder popping without an explanation or injury)
  • Cavitation

Cavitation happens when there is air in the joint, usually when some of the liquid lubricant turns into a gas. A quick shoulder movement then releases this air and creates a popping noise. This is similar in sound and sensation to cracking your knuckles. Often there is no pain or related illness.

Painful Shoulder Popping When Rotating Arm

There can be underlying medical issues associated with crepitus or creaky popping shoulders. Most of these disorders cause pain in and around the shoulder and often include weakness or loss of function. These are the most common medical conditions associated with shoulder pain and popping:

Scapulothoracic Bursitis

Bursitis is the inflammation of the bursa, or bursae, in the shoulder and scapula areas. Sometimes referred to as “snapping scapular syndrome,” the shoulder popping is sometimes accompanied by a feeling of warmth. Symptoms may also include:

  • Sharp, stabbing pain, especially with movement, that can be severe
  • Swelling or redness
  • Pain or tenderness when touched or pressed on
  • Inability to move the shoulder
  • Fever
  • Aches and stiffness

Labral Tears

Labral tears occur when the cartilage of your shoulder joint is torn by repetitive motions, injury, or age. The two most common types are a Bankart tear (bottom of the shoulder) and a SLAP tear (inner shoulder). Labral tears are common among people who do a lot of overhead throwing, weight-lifting, tackling, or generally overuse the joint. Symptoms of a labral tear include:

  • Pain and discomfort that is hard to ignore
  • Limited range of motion
  • Grating, grinding, or popping sound with any shoulder motion
  • A “catching” or “locking” feeling with attempted shoulder movement
  • A feeling of weakness


Osteochondromas are benign (noncancerous) cartilage or bone tumors that begin to develop in childhood. They can be single or multiple growths. Most often you won’t know you have one until they put pressure on bones, tissues, or nerves. Symptoms of less severe osteochondromas are:

  • Popping or clicking sounds
  • Pain with specific movements
  • Hard, small lump(s)
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Circulation issues
  • Muscle soreness near the lump
  • Irritation of the shoulder joint

Osteoarthritis (OA)

OA is the most common form of arthritis and is the result of cartilage breaking down because of changes or damage to the tissue or structure of the joint. Symptoms of OA include:

  • Popping noises
  • Joint ache and pain
  • Stiffness
  • Decreased flexibility
  • Swelling
  • Loss of function

Rotator Cuff Injuries

Rotator cuff injuries are damages to any of the four muscles of the shoulder joint and adjacent tendons. The rotator cuff keeps your humerus (arm bone) in the shoulder socket. This damage can be the result of sudden injury or degeneration due to overuse. Rowers, tennis players, and baseball players are particularly susceptible to rotator cuff tears. Symptoms include:

  • Popping or clicking noises
  • Difficulty raising your arm
  • Pain with movement or pain that gets worse at night or when your shoulder is resting
  • Weakness and difficulty lifting items
  • Inability to sleep on the affected shoulder

When To Be Concerned About Shoulder Popping Noises

If your shoulder pop is accompanied by pain, warmth, or any of the following symptoms, make an appointment with your medical care provider for a shoulder evaluation. If you see a deformity or open wound in and around your shoulder joint, you should see a doctor immediately.

Shoulder movement should not be painful. Failure to treat a shoulder joint issue, or an injury that is not properly treated can result in “frozen shoulder,” a term used to describe shoulders with limited range of motion.

Treatments For Noisy Shoulders

Treatments for crepitus and creaky shoulder joints can often start at home, assuming you are not experiencing anything more than mild discomfort and there is no outward sign of a serious injury. Usual home remedies include:

  • Ice or a cold compress
  • Foam rollers
  • Over-the-counter pain medication like anti-inflammatory/NSAIDS

If your shoulder popping is related to a more severe injury or condition, your doctor may treat shoulder crepitus with any of the following more common treatments:

  • Corticosteroid injections
  • Physical Therapy
  • Massage Therapy
  • Surgery

Surgery is an option for serious medical conditions and for shoulder injuries that don’t get better after three to six months. An orthopedic surgeon can repair your shoulder’s tendons and ligaments, reconstruct joints, fix rotator cuff injuries and remove osteochondromas.

Shoulder Popping Prevention

You can help prevent some causes of shoulder popping and painful medical conditions in three simple ways.

  • Good Posture: Slouching at your desk or while driving causes your body’s structures to misalign. This can mean your shoulders aren’t in proper alignment, which can create the air bubble associated with cavitation. You can also put more strain on your shoulders if you have poor posture.
  • Gentle Exercise: Gentle exercise is any exercise that is not an intense workout. These light exercises focus on strengthening muscles around the joint, keeping the joints mobile, increasing balance, and improving mental health. Examples of gentle exercise include yoga, tai chi, walking, light bike rides, pilates, and swimming.
  • Moderation: Overuse and repetitive motions are common causes of damage and injury to the shoulder joint anatomy. Try to practice moderation in heavy shoulder joint use activities, especially in sports. More importantly, listen to your body. If your shoulder is feeling weak or painful, try home treatments and allow the shoulder to rest.

Shoulder popping with rotation or movement of the shoulder joint can have a range of causes, many of which may require professional evaluation. And MOSH offers easy access to help through our Ortho Walk-In Clinics (no physician referral required), Physical Therapy locations, and the region’s most accomplished orthopedic professionals with the latest technology at their disposal. Get help for your shoulder. Contact us or call 414-817-5800 today.