Could My Shoulder Pain Be Caused by AC Joint Arthritis?

Patient suffering from AC joint arthritis.

Just when you’re finally ready to retire and spend more time on the golf course, AC joint arthritis can flare up and make it too difficult to swing a nine-iron.

Acromioclavicular arthritis—most often referred to as AC joint arthritis—is one of the most common shoulder problems in older adults. In fact, X-rays show as many as 57% of seniors have some degenerative changes in their AC joint, according to a study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

While arthritis of the AC joint is common, some people are more at risk than others. The good news is that many different conservative treatment options can provide relief.

Keep reading to learn about the causes and symptoms of AC joint arthritis, what to expect at your appointment with a shoulder specialist, and the treatment options available if you’re dealing with this condition.

What Is AC Joint Arthritis?

The acromioclavicular (AC) joint is located in the upper shoulder, where the collarbone meets the top of the shoulder blade. While there are a few forms of AC joint arthritis, osteoarthritis is the most common.

Causes of AC Joint Osteoarthritis

Within the AC joint, cartilage covers and protects the area where the bones meet. Osteoarthritis develops as this cartilage thins and, eventually, wears away.

The risk factors for AC joint osteoarthritis include:

  • Aging
  • Family History
  • Previous Injury or Surgery 
  • Joint Stress 
  • Frequently Lifting Objects Overhead
  • Participation in Weightlifting or High-Impact Sports
  • Congenital Defect or Illness
  • Poor Bone Alignment

What Does AC Joint Arthritis Feel Like?

People who are suffering from osteoarthritis in the AC joint may experience one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Pain and Tenderness at the Top of Your Shoulder 
  • Difficulty Stretching Your Arm Across Your Body (e.g., Swinging a Golf Club or Putting on a Seat Belt)
  • Pain When Reaching Behind Your Back or Overhead
  • Pain That Radiates From Your Shoulder to Your Neck or Arm (Can Also Cause hHeadaches)
  • Shoulder Pain That Interrupts Your Sleep
  • Clicking, Popping, or Snapping Sensations When You Put Stress on Your Shoulder

What Makes This Type of Osteoarthritis Worse?

In addition to the symptoms associated with AC joint arthritis, bone spurs can develop in the shoulder. These bony growths can increase pain and lead to other bothersome conditions, including shoulder impingement.

Getting an AC Joint Arthritis Diagnosis

If you have shoulder pain or any other symptoms listed above, you should make an appointment with a shoulder specialist for a thorough exam to get to the root of the problem.

A specialist will take a comprehensive look at your symptoms and rule out other potential causes, such as rotator cuff problems or cervical degenerative disc disease.

At your appointment, the doctor will ask questions about your lifestyle, the type of work you do, your hobbies and activities, and if you’ve had any past shoulder injuries.

Initial Evaluation

Your shoulder specialist will ask about your family history, current symptoms, and any limitations to your range of motion. They will also examine your shoulder, looking for any spots of pain, tenderness, or weakness, and will look for any differences between your two shoulders.

Cross-Body Adduction Test

A shoulder specialist may also perform what’s called the cross-body adduction test.

During the test, they will support and move your extended arm across your body toward your other shoulder. If this motion causes any pain in the top part of your shoulder, AC joint arthritis could be to blame.


Your shoulder doctor may also order imaging like an X-ray or MRI to get a better look at what’s going on in your shoulder.

What Can Be Done to Treat Arthritis in the AC Joint?

Most people with arthritis in the AC joint will not need surgery and can get significant relief from symptoms with conservative treatment methods.

Some nonsurgical options for AC joint arthritis treatment include:

  • Rest
  • Activity Modification
  • Warm or Cold Compress
  • Physical Therapy
  • Steroid Injections
  • Topical Medications
  • Oral Pain Relievers or Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (e.g., Acetaminophen, Aspirin, Celebrex, Ibuprofen, or Naproxen)


During the diagnosis process, your specialist may also test for arthritis by injecting a local anesthetic directly into the AC joint.

They sometimes do this to see if the injection temporarily relieves your shoulder pain. If the injection does provide relief, they know that arthritis is most likely the culprit for your pain. However, if the injection doesn’t ease the pain, this may mean that you’re dealing with a different problem, such as a rotator cuff injury.

In severe cases when nonsurgical treatments don’t relieve symptoms, your shoulder specialist may recommend AC joint arthritis surgery.


The most common surgery to treat arthritis of the AC joint is a resection of the distal clavicle, also called a Mumford procedure. This is often performed arthroscopically, or with a scope, in a minimally-invasive fashion, and involves removing the damaged end of the collarbone to provide pain relief.

Shoulder Care You Can Trust

Pain from shoulder arthritis shouldn’t keep you from enjoying everyday activities. We’ve been treating AC joint arthritis at the Indiana Hand to Shoulder Center for more than 35 years and will take a collaborative approach to your care.

Start recovering from shoulder pain with complete care from IHTSC’s world-renowned group of surgeons, advanced practice providers, and therapists.

Trust our shoulder specialists to help you find answers and the best treatment for pain relief.

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Disclaimer: The materials on this website have been prepared for informational purposes only and do not constitute advice. You should not act or rely upon any medical information on this website without a physician’s advice. The information contained within this website is not intended to serve as a substitution for a thorough examination from a qualified healthcare provider. The display of this information is not intended to create a health care provider-patient relationship between the Indiana Hand to Shoulder Center and you.