Shoulder crepitus: Causes, symptoms, and exercises

By: Emily Lunardo | Bone Health | Wednesday, July 05, 2017 - 08:00 AM

shoulder crepitusCrepitus is the medical term for a grinding, creaking, or grating sound or sensation that occurs when moving a joint. It can be produced by friction between bone and cartilage or the fractured parts of a bone when speaking in the context of bone joints. Crepitus can occur at any age, but more commonly develops as people get older.

In the majority of cases, crepitus develops due to everyday use and changes that occur over time within the joint. It is usually a painless sensation and not of much concern from a medical standpoint. However, if crepitus is associated with pain upon moving the joint, further investigation is often warranted.

Sustaining a significant injury to a joint, such as the shoulder, can lead to the development of crepitus as well. In certain instances, having sensations of popping or clicking in the shoulder joints could signify a potential problem with your shoulder.

What causes shoulder crepitus?

Most of the time, the cause of crepitus can be predicted by a person’s age. If they are under the age of 30, chances are that their shoulder clicking sounds are the result of repetitive use or previous injury that has lead to loosening of the shoulder ligaments. This may be seen in young athletes that participate in contact sports. Those over the age of 55 with crepitus in the shoulder most likely suffer from degenerative changes in the joint itself.

The following are some of the common reasons for shoulder crepitus development:

Labral tears

The shoulder joint is comprised of a ball and socket which fit into each other effortlessly. A ring composed of dense fibrous tissue surrounds the shoulder joint socket called the labrum. It also serves as an attachment for the ligaments and helps the ball of the shoulder stay in position. If the labrum of the shoulder becomes torn or damaged from any sort of injury or repetitive stress it may result in the formation of crepitus. Those who have painful crepitus due to labral tears and don’t respond physical therapy may require surgery. Tears on the top of the labrum are referred to as a SLAP lesion.

Rotator cuff tears

The rotator cuff is the part of the shoulder joint that is comprised of a group of muscles and tendons that surround the shoulder joint and helps to keep the head of the upper arm bone firmly within the ball socket. If the rotator cuff tendons become torn, a loose edge within the shoulder can catch on other ligaments or structures in the shoulder leading to painful crepitus. In cases of rotator cuff tendinosis, inflammation can also develop leading to further shoulder joint damage. The inflammatory process of joint is often called bursitis and may cause additional swelling leading to a clicking or popping sensation.

Shoulder dislocation

Typically occurs due to an acute injury, shoulder dislocations are a common cause of shoulder crepitus. Injury to the shoulder leads to the joint becoming looser and lead the ball of the shoulder to slide up or over the edge of the socket. When this ball falls back into place, a snapping or popping sounds can be appreciated.


Due to loss of cartilage surrounding the joint, cushioning that previously lined it is lost. This results in the surfaces of the shoulder bones to rub against each other during movement. The bones of the shoulder are naturally rough in nature and therefore cause clicking, snapping or popping sounds when cartilage is absent.

What are the symptoms of shoulder crepitus?

Symptoms may include sounds or sensations of:

  • Crackling
  • Grinding
  • Cracking
  • Creaking
  • Grating
  • Popping

If these symptoms occur without pain on movement, it is not considered a genuine issue. However, if pain were to be present, the condition should be taken seriously with medical treatment being pursued. It is important to note that the term crepitus is not exclusive to only joints, as it may be used to describe a crackling sound heard in the lungs of certain lung disorders.

Exercises for shoulder crepitus

Performing certain gentle exercises can help preserve function, increase strength and increase the range of motion in cases of crepitus. However, these exercises should be avoided if you are experiencing pain with your shoulder movements.

The following are easy to perform exercises you can try at home today:

Pendulum warm-up

This exercise warms up the rotator cuff of the shoulder. Sit toward the front edge of a chair and brace your left hand on your right thigh. While keeping your back straight, lean forward and to the right. Let your right arm dangle at your side while you gently swing it back and forth like a pendulum. Now, fully rotate the rotator cuff by performing a full circle with your right arm. Now repeat this exercise on your left side.

Exercise #1

Hold a towel in both hands with your palms facing upward. While keeping your elbows at your sides and bent at 90 degrees, slowly move your arms to the right and then to the left. Repeat this exercise two to three times, going a little farther each time while staying in your comfort zone.

Exercise #2

Wrap a towel behind your waist like a belt, holding its ends. While keeping your elbows at your sides, bend them at 90 degrees with your palms facing each other. Now slowly move your arms to the right and then to the left as you gently stretch the rotator cuff muscles.

Exercise #3

While holding a towel horizontally at shoulder height and shoulder-width apart, keep your palms down and turn the towel vertically. Do this first in one direction, then the other. Repeat this exercise two to three times.

Exercise #4

Holding a towel in both hands with your arms in resting position, slowly bring your arms upward to shoulder height. Do this exercise while still remaining comfortable and increase the height you raise the towel a bit higher each time. Lift the towel straight over your head as long there is no pain.

Exercise #5

With your arms a little further apart than shoulder width, raise your towel over your head. Now gently lower the towel down towards the top of your head then raise it back up again. Repeat this exercise two to three times.

Related: Shoulder blade (scapula) pain causes, symptoms, treatments, and exercises

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