Understanding the physical examination of the shoulder: a narrative review

Ann Palliat Med. 2021 Feb;10(2):2293-2303. doi: 10.21037/apm-20-1808. Epub 2021 Feb 2.


The shoulder joint is a ball and socket joint which provides an extensive range of motion. Shoulder pain and weakness are common complaints among patients, which can lead to disability and affect a person's ability to perform daily activities. Shoulder pain and weakness may be associated with shoulder conditions such as rotator cuff disorders adhesive capsulitis, superior labrum anterior to posterior lesions, lesions in the biceps, acromioclavicular joint disease, or instability. Often, a thorough understanding of the network of bony, ligamentous, muscular, and neurovascular anatomy is required to properly identify and diagnose shoulder pathology. Identifying a specific shoulder pathology may be challenging, considering the numerous structures involved in shoulder function. Appropriate physical examination of the shoulder is important for making an accurate diagnosis and distinguishing certain pathologies of the shoulder. Evaluation of shoulder problem may be reliant upon physical examination, which involves inspection, palpation, assessment of range of motion, strength, and neurovascular integrity. In addition, specific tests are used to reproduce symptoms and signs that would help physicians identify the pathology of the shoulder problem. The aim of this study was to review the shoulder anatomy and describe the specific tests used to evaluate common shoulder conditions to facilitate accurate diagnosis and guide proper treatment of these conditions.

Keywords: Shoulder; diagnosis; physical examination; shoulder pain.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Joint Instability* / diagnosis
  • Physical Examination
  • Range of Motion, Articular
  • Shoulder
  • Shoulder Joint*