What questions will my doctor ask to diagnose a shoulder problem?

Dr. Kristofer J. Jones, MD
Orthopedic Surgeon

A good patient history and physical exam is the foundation for an accurate diagnosis of your shoulder issue, and as part of that, your doctor will ask many questions. To begin, he or she will want to know the reason for your visit. Is it pain? Weakness? Stiffness? Does your shoulder feel unstable? Do you have decreased range of motion? For instance, are you not able to do all the things that you used to be able to do, such as reach into the cupboard for a coffee cup?

Relevant history is important, too. Did you have an injury? Did you fall and dislocate the shoulder? Did a car hit you? What's your occupation? Could this be related to the work you do? Does your occupation require a lot of overhead activity? What types of recreational sports do you play on a regular basis?

He or she will then characterize the pain, in terms of severity and anatomy. How bad is it? Where is it exactly? The time of day is important, as night pain is a very common complaint that people with rotator cuff problems have. Does the pain radiate below the elbow? Does it make the fingers and hand numb? That's a clue that your problem may actually be coming from the cervical neck due to nerve pathology thus resulting in referred pain.

Finally, your doctor will ask about how your shoulder pain is affecting your daily activities, as well as what previous treatments you've had, including physical therapy, NSAIDs or injections. Knowing what kinds of treatments you've had before can keep him or her from going down that same road.

To diagnose a shoulder problem, the doctor will ask you when it occurred, how often it occurs, and will try to know more about your everyday activities.

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