Hamlet reached up to put Yorick’s skull back and felt a nasty pain in his shoulder. He gazed into the distance. “Arthritis or Bursitis, that is the question!” he mused.

It is a question many people wonder about every day when faced with shoulder pain, although they probably don’t invoke Shakespearean quotes at the time. It can be difficult to tell the difference between the two, although they are completely different conditions. 

This article will describe: 

  • What is going on in your shoulder in the case of arthritis and bursitis
  • How the symptoms of arthritis and bursitis are similar and how they are different
  • What to do if you suspect either condition


The medical suffix “itis” literally means “inflamed,” so bursitis is an inflammation of the bursae.

Bursae are fluid-filled sacs that act as cushions between bones, joints, and muscles throughout the body. Bursitis of the shoulder happens when the tendons and bursae become inflamed. The tendons should be able to slide between the bone at the top of the arm and the shoulder bone, but instead, the inflammation causes swelling and impingement, and pain and loss of movement result. This is why another name for bursitis is Impingement Syndrome.

If you have bursitis, your shoulder may ache, hurt when you attempt to move it or put pressure on it, or even appear swollen and red. You may find it difficult to reach your arm above your head. Bursitis can be caused by overuse, so it is a common condition among athletes who practice repetitive movements, such as throwing, pitching, or swimming, but it can also affect anyone who puts pressure on their shoulder joint with repetitive motions.


You already know that “itis” means inflammation; “arthron” is the Greek word for joint, so it is easy to see that arthritis literally means inflammation of the joint. Since the word was coined, however, its definition has been enlarged to include inflammation of muscles, tendons, and ligaments as well.

There are two main types of arthritis that may affect your shoulder — glenohumeral arthritis and acromioclavicular arthritis. Both types are caused by damage to the cartilage inside the shoulder joint, although they occur between two different bone sockets. 


This occurs as a result of wear and tear on the cartilage, so it is particularly prevalent in older people, particularly women after the age of 40 and men after the age of 50. Like bursitis, it can be caused by a lifetime of repetitive movement, but genetics can also play a role.

Rheumatoid Arthritis: 

This is an autoimmune disease where the body attacks membranes, which then can damage nearby cartilage and bone. It often occurs in both shoulders (it is symmetrical) and is sometimes tested for by searching for particular antibodies in the blood. If this is suspected, you will likely be referred to a rheumatologist.

Post Traumatic Arthritis: 

This is a type of osteoarthritis that is caused by injury to the cartilage. This can occur after fractures, dislocations, or any other type of injury. It can be exacerbated by excess body weight, but basically stems from changing the mechanics of the shoulder joint so that it wears out more quickly.

Similarities and Differences Between Bursitis and Arthritis

Both problems have:

  • Pain and aching in the joint
  • Stiffness and swelling
  • Pain triggered by movement
  • Loss of range of motion


  • Pain, tenderness, and redness are specifically on the top and outside of the shoulder.
  • Pain may be triggered by pressure, such as lying on your side.
  • Pain may come and go.
  • Pain becomes more acute with repetitive motion.
  • Bursitis can usually be cured with treatment.


  • Pain can build gradually — over a period of months or years.
  • Pain can be worse after inactivity (such as when you get up in the morning).
  • Pain can lessen the more you use your shoulder (as you loosen up in the day).
  • The condition can be managed, but not cured.

True Sports Is Here to Help

The expert physical therapists at True Sports specialize in helping athletes with shoulder pain or injury. When you begin to experience shoulder pain and immobility, it’s time to throw in the towel (with your good arm, of course) and seek medical treatment. Recovering from most sports-related shoulder injuries shouldn’t take long, but ignoring your pain and injury can cause irreparable damage that keeps you out of sports permanently.

Make an appointment at one of our seven convenient locations in the Greater Baltimore area: (410) 514-3297