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Glenohumeral Arthritis

Glenohumeral arthritis is defined by shoulder pain and stiffness from damage to the articulation between the humeral head and the glenoid process of the scapula. This arthritis may be idiopathic (osteoarthritis), or from autoimmune synovial inflammation (rheumatoid arthritis). Other known causes include trauma (including microtrauma from altered biomechanics or rotator cuff tears), gout, osteonecrosis, neuropathy (Charcot Arthropathy) and infection.

Structure and Function

The glenohumeral joint is a ball and socket joint made by the articulation of the humeral head in the glenoid fossa of the

With little bony constraint, the joint is the most mobile joint in the body and consequently, inherently unstable. The joint is
stabilized by static and dynamic restraints. The static restraints consist of the three glenohumeral ligaments and the glenoid
labrum. The dynamic restraints consist of the rotator cuff muscles, the rotator interval, and the tendon of the long head of the biceps.

The glenohumeral joint has three degrees of freedom and functions to perform the following movements at the glenohumeral
articulation: flexion/extension; adduction/abduction; and internal and external rotation. Forward flexion is also known as
“elevation”, and adduction is also known as “cross body abduction” or “horizontal abduction” (See figures 1 -4).

Figure 1

Shoulder elevation. Patients should be able to elevate the arm such that it is parallel with the torso, i.e., about 180 degrees.

Figure 2

Shoulder adduction. Patients should able to reach across the midline, and ideally to be able to touch the contralateral shoulder.

Figure 3

Shoulder internal rotation. Patients are asked to reach behind their backs. Internal rotation can be quantified by noting the approximate spinal level the patient can reach with his or her thumb, as shown.

Glenoid version refers to the relationship between the glenoid cavity and the humeral head. It is a radiographic measurement determined by the angle between the glenoid line and the line perpendicular to the scapular axis. The glenoid is normally slightly retroverted. In addition, the humeral head and neck are also retroverted from the humeral shaft (with the anterior plane defined by the position of the humeral epicondyles at the elbow). Normal humeral version is 20-30° of retroversion. Deviations from normal version can disturb normal mechanics and lead to arthritic


In glenohumeral arthritis, the articular cartilage of the humeral head or glenoid or
both is damaged. As in the arthritis of many other joints, glenohumeral arthritis can
affect the subchondral bone as well.


The most common etiology of glenohumeral arthritis is primary osteoarthritis (OA). OA
is characterized by progressive degeneration of articular cartilage, dense subchondral
bone growth, osteophyte formation, glenoid erosion, and displacement of the humeral

Figure 4

Shoulder external rotation is assessed by asking the patient to place his or her arm at the side, flex the elbow to 90 degrees and rotate externally. Because the scapula is not oriented perfectly with the torso, the glenohumeral joint is already externally rotated 30 degrees when the arm is pointing directly forward. The normal glenohumeral joint should be able to externally rotate an additional 60 degrees, as shown here

Additional Causes of Glenohumeral Arthritis

Patient Presentation

Patients with glenohumeral arthritis present with shoulder pain and stiffness. Taking a thorough history with these patients is
key as it can determine the etiology of the disease.

The clinical presentation depends on the underlying cause of the arthritis.

Patients with glenohumeral osteoarthritis are typically over 50 years old and present with a chief complaint of pain. The pain
is usually insidious in onset, progressive, chronic, and worsens with activity. Discomfort may lead to nocturnal awakening,
especially when lying on the affected side, and patients typically have functional limitations due to a decreased range of
motion. On physical exam, the affected extremity may be atrophic secondary to disuse. Patients have tenderness over the
posterior joint line and crepitus with motion of the joint. The most dramatic finding is typically decreased range of motion
which is most pronounced with external rotation.

Patients with rheumatoid arthritis present with pain, decreased range of motion, crepitation, and effusions in multiple joints.
The effects typically evolve slowly and insidiously. The shoulder is rarely the first joint affected and it is almost never the
only affected joint.

A number of other disease processes, including osteonecrosis, recurrent glenohumeral dislocations, and posttraumatic articular
incongruity can lead to destruction of the glenohumeral articular cartilage. In most cases, this results in secondary
osteoarthritis and has symptoms similar to primary osteoarthritis although the history will suggest this secondary cause.

Of note, septic arthritis may hurt even without motion, but symptoms are worsened with activity.

Objective Evidence

Imaging of the glenohumeral joint starts with radiographs taken at three views: AP, lateral and scapular (also known as a “Y”)
view. Findings on these radiographs often lead to the etiology of the arthritis (Figure 5).

Figure 5

Shoulder external rotation is assessed by asking the patient to place his or her arm at the side, flex the elbow to 90 degrees and rotate externally. Because the scapula is not oriented perfectly with the torso, the glenohumeral joint is already externally rotated 30 degrees when the arm is pointing directly forward. The normal glenohumeral joint should be able to externally rotate an additional 60 degrees, as shown here.

Advanced imaging such as CT and MRI are indicated for pre-operative planning as they provide the surgeon with enhanced imaging
of glenoid morphology and rotator cuff pathology.

For the most part, no laboratory tests are necessary for the diagnosis of glenohumeral arthritis. However, if an inflammatory or crystalline arthropathy is suspected, specific labs may be indicated. Namely, ESR, CRP, Rheumatoid factor, and Anti-CCP
antibodies for RA and synovial fluid analysis for crystalline arthropathies.


Arthritis of the glenohumeral joint typically affects patients in the sixth decade of life and on. Of the large joints, the
glenohumeral joint trails the hip and knee in the incidence of arthritis–perhaps because a person can avoid using his or her
shoulder in a way not possible with the weight bearing joints. Yet because of this relative underuse potential, the true
incidence of glenohumeral arthritis remains undetermined.

Differential Diagnosis

Shoulder pain with decreased mobility is a common presentation. After the clinician has determined the shoulder pain to be
glenohumeral in origin, the following diagnoses, in the alternative, or in addition to arthritis should be considered:

Clinically, these injuries can appear identical to glenohumeral arthritis and radiographic studies are needed to determine the
etiology of the shoulder pain.

Of note, rotator cuff tears have a 5-10% incidence with osteoarthritis of the glenohumeral joint and a 25-50% incidence with
rheumatoid arthritis.

Treatment Options and Outcomes

Mainstays of non-operative treatment for glenohumeral arthritis consist of physical therapy, NSAIDs, activity modification, and
injections. NSAIDs reduce pain and inflammation, while physical therapy works to improve range of motion and strengthen the
surrounding musculature.

RA can be very well controlled with disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARD). Intraarticular injections of corticosteroids
act to reduce inflammation. However, arthritis is a progressive disease and medical treatment exhausts quickly.

End stage degenerative joint disease can be treated with joint replacement: Hemiarthroplasty; Total Shoulder Arthroplasty; and
Reverse Shoulder Arthroplasty.


A hemiarthroplasty involves replacing the humeral head with a stemmed prosthesis. It is indicated for patients who have failed
non-operative treatment with an intact glenoid and articular damage to the humerus. The best results are seen in patients with
concentric glenoids and intact rotator cuffs. This operation is technically easier than adding a glenoid replacement, but
usually provides less symptomatic relief. Hemiarthroplasty is also used to treat fracture of the humeral head.

Total Shoulder Arthroplasty

In a total shoulder arthroplasty, the arthritic humeral head is replaced with a metal ball fixed to a stem inserted into the
humeral shaft and the glenoid is resurfaced with a polyethylene insert (Figure 6). This procedure is best for patients with a
moderate to low activity level. Patients need good bone stock and an intact or repairable rotator cuff. Patients treated with
total shoulder arthroplasty see good pain relief and reliable range of motion with a 10-year survival rate of 92-95%. Common
complications include component loosening, infection, fracture nerve injury, and rotator cuff tear.

Figure 6

Total shoulder arthroplasty. The glenoid component is made of plastic and not readily apparent on x-ray (unless you look for it); it is outlined in the reproduction at right. (courtesy

Reverse Shoulder Arthroplasty

In a reverse shoulder arthroplasty, the glenoid socket is replaced with a metal ball and secured to the scapula and the humeral
head is replaced with a cup attached to a stem which functions as a socket (Figure 7). This is the opposite anatomic arrangement of the native glenohumeral joint. This arrangement provides stability in the absence of a functioning rotator cuff. It is indicated for rotator cuff arthropathy, severe proximal humerus fractures, failed total shoulder arthropathy, and glenohumeral deformities that cannot be reconstructed otherwise. This operation can dramatically increase the function of the shoulder and provide excellent pain relief.

Figure 7

A reverse shoulder arthroplasty.

Shoulder Arthrodesis

An arthrodesis involves the surgical resection and fusion of the glenohumeral joint. This operation is indicated for laborers
unwilling to alter their activities, uncontrolled joint sepsis, recurrent shoulder instability, loss of rotator cuff and deltoid musculature, brachial plexus plexopathies, and salvage for failed total shoulder arthroplasty. Because there is a lot of motion between the scapula and thorax, this operation is tolerated better than an analogous fusion of the hip joint. Nonetheless, most patients are happier with a joint replacement.

Risk Factors and Prevention

Age is one of the primary risks for the development of glenohumeral arthritis. Females display higher incidences of both OA and
RA. Glenohumeral arthritis is associated with activities that put high strain on the glenohumeral joint. However, many patients
develop arthritis of the shoulder without a decipherable cause.

Lifting heavy weights, either at work or for recreation, increases the chances of developing glenohumeral osteoarthritis.

The incidence of glenohumeral arthritis increase with a history of trauma and prior surgery to the shoulder. Certain studies
have shown that over 50% of patients with a primary anterior shoulder dislocation go on to develop some degree of glenohumeral
arthritis at 25 years follow-up.


The characteristic osteophyte of glenohumeral arthritis is termed a goat’s beard (Figure 8).

Figure 8

An inferior osteophyte suggestive of a goat’s beard. (courtesy https:// Arthritis+of+the+Gleno-humeral+joint)

Key Terms

Glenohumeral arthritis, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, articular cartilage, arthroplasty


Recognize and describe the deformities of the glenohumeral joint caused by arthritis. Recognize the potential etiologies of
glenohumeral arthritis. Recognize the clinical and radiographic signs of glenohumeral arthritis. Describe the different
treatment modalities for glenohumeral arthritis.

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