Left neck and shoulder pain: 9 causes, mild-to-severe

Home » Left neck and shoulder pain: 9 causes, mild-to-severe

Do you have pain on the left neck and shoulder? It could be caused by various factors, from bad posture to disc disease.

In this post I will discuss the 9 common causes of Left neck and shoulder pain. We will start with mild causes and work our way up to the most severe. Knowing the cause of your pain is the most important step in finding relief!

Postural Syndrome

Posture has some pretty far-reaching effects in the human body – from blood pressure to mood, balance and breathing. [1][2]

But what is it about posture that can lead to actual pain in our neck and shoulder? Bad posture effects include increased pressure on the spine, due to forward head carriage (FHC). This increases muscle tension in the upper back, causing neck problems.

Postural syndrome is highly correlated with daily activities. Prolonged sitting and computer use causes FHC and changes our upper body mechanics – potentially leading to bursitis, or neck problems.

woman at desk with left neck pain
bad posture and sitting twisted to the side is highly likely to cause pain on the left neck and shoulder

Left Shoulder Bursitis

If you have stiffness, swelling, and persistent arm pain, you could have left shoulder bursitis. The pain affects range of motion, and can be accompanied by a clicking or popping sound. Bursitis is a common cause of chronic pain.

Prolonged or severe bursa pain requires treatment with corticosteroid injections, so the healing process has a better chance.

The bursa is one of the shoulder soft tissues – a small, fluid-filled sac that acts as a cushion between bones and tendons (the tough tissue that connects muscle to bone). Bursitis occurs when the bursa becomes inflamed.

inflamed shoulder bursa diagram

How many bursae are in the shoulder?

There are eight bursae in the shoulder joint and surrounding it. Shoulder bursitis refers to inflammation of any of the bursae in the shoulder.

This can be caused by repetitive movements, injury, bad posture, or arthritis. The bursa can be torn if stressed badly enough.

Can I exercise with Bursitis?

You can exercise if you can avoid the activities that are aggravating the bursitis. But sometimes the cause isn’t clear.

In those cases, you have to be extra careful with your activity level and give yourself time to rest and heal.

If you have already been diagnosed with a mild, non-serious issue like minor bursitis and need further guidance, read this article about exercising with Shoulder Pain.

Cervical facet sprain

The cervical facet joints are the small joints in the neck that allow the neck to move. A sprain occurs when these joint ligaments are stretched too far!

When this happens it can feel like a “pinched nerve“, but it’s actually the ligament that has been pinched in the facet joint.

This can happen due to trivial actions, even sleeping in twisted positions, or making awkward movements. Even washing your hair too vigorously! Also, repetitive motions combined with poor posture. It is a common complaint we see in our chiropractic office.

The symptoms of a left-sided cervical facet sprain are muscle spasms, left neck pain and stiffness, with difficulty turning your head to the left and backward.

The painful area can be located at the neck, but often lower in the upper back, causing a burning shoulder blade pain.

Left first rib dysfunction

The first rib lives up high, very close to your neck. It is an important site for soft tissue and muscle attachment, for example the scalene muscles.

First rib dysfunction occurs when this rib becomes fixated and doesn’t move properly. This can be caused by poor posture, repetitive motions, or trauma (even a minor fall with the hand out front to catch yourself).

Symptoms of first rib dysfunction include neck pain and tenderness, as well as pain that radiates into the shoulder or down the arm.

The neck pain is often worse with movement and may be accompanied by headaches, dizziness, or even tingling and numbness in the arm.

left first rib neck pain
Location of the first rib, a cause of shoulder and neck pain
lateral-first rib-location

Rotator cuff tear

The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that attach the shoulder blade to the upper arm. These muscles and tendons help lift and rotate the arm.

Tears can happen due to repetitive motions at work or sport, or improper lifting incidents.

Symptoms of a rotator cuff tear include pain and tenderness in the shoulder, as well as weakness in the arm, especially lifting out to the side, or reaching up behind your back.

Left Brachial plexus injury

The brachial plexus is a group of nerves that come from the spinal cord in the neck, to supply the muscles of the shoulder, arm, and hand.

Injuries to these nerves occur during trauma – like a car accident where you get “sidelash”, where the head is forded away from the shoulder, or a fall onto an outstretched arm.

What does brachial plexus injury feel like?

The symptoms of a left brachial plexus injury include left neck and shoulder pain, weakness in the shoulder and arm, and possibly numbness and tingling in the hand.

In some cases, there may be only minor numbness or tingling. More serious injuries can cause complete paralysis of the affected arm or complete loss of sensation.

The more severe brachial plexus injuries injuries make it difficult to even perform basic activities such as brushing your teeth or combing your hair!

The brachial plexus travels through an area called the posterior triangle
brachial plexus left neck pain

Cervical radiculopathy

The intervertebral foramen (IVF) are the small openings between the vertebrae through which the spinal nerves pass. In spine arthritis (spondylosis), bone spurs around these spaces start to grow and irritate these nerve roots.

This often happens due to degeneration – poor joint mechanics for a prolonged time, exacerbated by past injuries and posture habits. This can lead to OA – Osteoarthritis.

The symptoms of left IVF encroachment include left neck and shoulder pain and stiffness, which travels down the arm. The pain is often worse with movement and may be accompanied by lightning-sharp pain into the shoulder, shoulder blade, or down the arm.

Radiculopathy is the word describing this situation of direct nerve irritation. It can be a serious problem because the nerve pressure in the left side of the neck can cause muscles in the shoulder and arm to weaken.

Plain x-ray pictures can show this bony encroachment in the neck.

But it’s not only bone spurs that can be the cause of the pain. The intervertebral discs can encroach on the IVF too, if they are bulging.

Cervical disc herniation

The cervical spine is made up of bones called vertebrae, and in between these vertebrae are discs. These discs act as spacers for the nerve roots, and aid in spinal loading and correct movement.

A disc herniation occurs when the inner gel-like material (nucleus) leaks out through a tear in the outer, more fibrous layer of the disc. This can happen from degenerative changes (degenerative disc disease, or DDD) or trauma (a fall on the head, car accident, etc.).

Disc herniation is very common in the Lumbar spine.

spinal disc herniation can cause left shoulder and neck pain

Symptoms of a left cervical disc herniation include neck pain and stiffness, as well as pain that radiates into the left shoulder or down the left arm. It can feel like it’s affecting multiple body areas.

The pain may be accompanied by tingling, numbness, or weakness in the arm and hand, even to the fingertips!

How disc injury affects reflexes

Your arm reflexes may be reduced if the disc herniates on to a nerve root. If the disc herniates on to the spinal cord, this causes central canal (spinal stenosis) narrowing, potentially increasing your reflexes.

Do I have disc pain?

Disc pain, especially if chronic, will feel dull/achey, whereas a facet sprain or IVF radiculopathy will be sharper, even ‘electric’.

To properly assess a spinal disc you will need a referral from your general practitioner for a CT scan, or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging, which is the best type of image for this condition).

Do I need surgery for my neck and shoulder pain?

Conditions that require surgery in chronic or severe cases include:

  • Bursa injury, e.g a bursa tear
  • Rotator cuff tear – to re-form or re-attach the tendon
  • Radiculopathy: surgical opening of the intervertebral foramen to reduce nerve pressure
  • Cervical Disc herniation: discectomy, or in advanced degenerative cases, cervical fusion.
neck vertebral fusion xray
Severe spinal problems may require surgical fusion

Heart attack

Symptoms of a heart attack can vary greatly from person to person. Some experience chest pain or pressure, while others may have pain in their left shoulder, jaw, or back.

Other common symptoms are shortness of breath, sweating, lightheadedness, and nausea. Medical advice is needed if you have those symptoms.

Consider your medical history, and if in the future you suspect your shoulder or back pain is indicating heart trouble, seek urgent help.

Now that you know the most common causes of Left neck and shoulder pain, it’s important to explore treatment options.

Speak with your doctor, chiropractor or physical therapist for physical examination and guidance on pain relief.

You should be able to receive the specific exercises that will improve your condition and quality of life.

Identify which of the above symptoms you are experiencing, and please don’t ignore any signs of radiating pain, weakness or numbness.

In our clinic, we know that many issues in the left side of your neck can be relieved by achieving good posture, and modifying your daily activities – such as desk and sleeping positions.

Ask us below to learn more.

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[1]Eşer I, Khorshid L, Güneş UY, Demir Y. The effect of different body positions on blood pressure. J Clin Nurs. 2007

[2]Veenstra L, Schneider IK, Koole SL. Embodied mood regulation: the impact of body posture on mood recovery, negative thoughts, and mood-congruent recall. Cogn Emot. 2017

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