Shoulder pain during pregnancy can result from expected changes in the body or more serious conditions. While simple methods such as resting or applying heat may relieve discomfort in some cases, treatment varies based on what is causing the pain.

Regular changes in the body during pregnancy can cause aches and pains, which someone may feel in the shoulder. Other times, shoulder pain could indicate a more serious health problem. Pain in the shoulder area could indicate a rare disorder that affects the nerves, or it could be a preeclampsia or ectopic pregnancy symptom.

Both preeclampsia and ectopic pregnancy can be life threatening. They can also cause symptoms besides shoulder pain. These conditions may require an intense treatment approach.

This article will discuss possible causes of shoulder pain during pregnancy, the signs of preeclampsia, treatment options, when to see a doctor, and commonly asked questions.

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Shoulder pain may result from standard changes in the body. As pregnancy progresses, it alters the body in the following ways:

  • structure
  • function
  • hormone levels
  • movement patterns

These changes can cause pain in the muscles, bones, ligaments, joints, or tendons. As a result, discomfort may occur in the shoulder.

Parsonage-Turner syndrome (PTS) is a rare disorder that affects nerves that run through the spine, neck, and arms. PTS causes intense pain in the shoulder or arm area that can last for weeks. While experts do not know exactly what causes PTS during pregnancy, it may be due to immune system function.

Preeclampsia and ectopic pregnancy can also cause shoulder pain, along with other symptoms. Both conditions are serious and potentially life threatening.

Preeclampsia is a high blood pressure disorder that usually occurs in the third trimester or as early as 20 weeks. It can cause stroke, seizures, and HELLP syndrome.

An ectopic pregnancy is when the fetus grows outside the uterus, often in a fallopian tube. The fallopian tube can burst, resulting in internal bleeding. While ectopic pregnancy may feel like a typical pregnancy with mild symptoms at first, it can cause shoulder pain and other severe symptoms as it progresses.

Preeclampsia could cause shoulder pain. Research connects it to 2–8% of worldwide pregnancy complications.

Aside from shoulder pain, symptoms can include:

  • high blood pressure
  • nausea and vomiting during the second half of pregnancy
  • upper abdomen pain
  • vision changes or seeing spots
  • trouble breathing
  • sudden increase in weight
  • persistent or severe headache
  • face or hand swelling
  • low platelet counts
  • atypical kidney or liver function
  • fluid in the lungs

Learn more about preeclampsia.

Speak to a doctor about unusual aches and pains during pregnancy.

Report any preeclampsia or ectopic pregnancy symptoms to a doctor right away. In the case of severe and sudden pain or weakness — which may be in the shoulder — seek immediate medical attention.

Also, consult a doctor before trying new treatments for shoulder pain. Some treatments and medications may not be safe or appropriate for a pregnant person.

Treatment for shoulder pain during pregnancy depends on what is causing it.

For general body aches and pains, resting, lying down, and applying heat may help. A doctor may also recommend:

  • exercise
  • physical therapy
  • manual therapy, such as massage
  • other noninvasive methods
  • pregnancy-safe medications

PTS has no one treatment, but it will sometimes go away on its own. If pain persists, a healthcare team can prescribe an individualized treatment plan, which could include medications, corticosteroids, or physical therapy.

Preeclampsia treatment varies based on the disease severity. If it begins at 37 weeks of pregnancy, treatment usually involves delivering the fetus.

If someone has a mild case of preeclampsia and has been pregnant for fewer than 37 weeks, a doctor may recommend waiting to deliver but with close monitoring. Bed rest could be necessary.

For more severe preeclampsia, treatment may occur in the hospital. It can involve intravenous (IV) medications and steroid injections. Depending on severity, a healthcare team may recommend delivery as early as 34 weeks of pregnancy. Delivery is usually contingent on disease status.

Learn more about preeclampsia with severe features.

Treatment for ectopic pregnancy involves removing the pregnancy. Options include medication to end the pregnancy or surgery to remove the pregnancy and possibly the fallopian tube. If a fallopian tube ruptures, someone will need emergency surgery.

Below are some common questions on shoulder pain in pregnancy.

What does preeclampsia pain feel like?

Preeclampsia can cause pain in the shoulder and upper right side of the abdomen, sometimes just below the rib cage. Nausea and vomiting may accompany the pain.

Which side of the shoulder hurts with ectopic pregnancy?

Ectopic pregnancy can cause shoulder pain where the arm and shoulder meet.

What are the signs of ectopic pregnancy at 6 weeks?

In the early stages of ectopic pregnancy, symptoms can resemble typical pregnancy symptoms, such as an unsettled stomach, breast tenderness, or a skipped menstrual period.

Other early signs include:

  • mild abdomen or pelvis pain
  • pain in the lower back
  • unusual vaginal bleeding
  • mild pelvis cramps on one side

Shoulder pain during pregnancy can come from multiple causes. Expected changes in the body can sometimes cause aches or pains in the muscles, joints, ligaments, tendons, or bones. Severe shoulder pain could be due to PTS, a rare condition that affects nerves in the neck and shoulder area.

Shoulder pain may also come from preeclampsia or ectopic pregnancy. Both conditions also have other symptoms and are potentially life threatening.

Talk with a doctor about unusual aches or pains before starting new treatments. Someone experiencing preeclampsia or ectopic pregnancy symptoms should seek medical attention right away. People should also seek emergency medical care for severe and sudden pain or weakness that could appear in the shoulder.

Treating shoulder pain during pregnancy depends on the cause. Rest may help relieve the pain. Other measures such as exercise, massage, and physical therapy may also be helpful. PTS pain may even resolve on its own, but if not, treatment is available.

For more serious causes like preeclampsia and ectopic pregnancy, treatment can involve medications, surgery, or early delivery of the fetus.