The shoulder is the most mobile joint in the body, enabling a wide range of movements including forward flexion, abduction, adduction, external rotation, internal rotation and 360-degree circumduction. This flexibility allows your arms to do all the things you need them to do. However, it also makes your shoulders more likely to get injured. Learning how your shoulder works can help you better understand what problem you have. The shoulder is made up of the shoulder joint itself, the acromioclavicular (AC) joint, and capsule, ligaments, tendons and muscles, with an important cushioning bursa between the layers. These all work together to allow the flexibility and movement of the shoulder.

Bones of the Shoulder

The shoulder joint is a ball and socket joint made up of three bones, namely the humerus, scapula and clavicle.


The end of the humerus or upper arm bone forms the ball of the shoulder joint. An irregular shallow cavity in the scapula called the glenoid cavity forms the socket for the head of the humerus to fit in. The two bones together form the glenohumeral joint, which is the main joint of the shoulder.

Scapula and Clavicle

The scapula is a flat triangular-shaped bone that forms the shoulder blade. It serves as the site of attachment for most of the muscles that provide movement and stability to the joint. The scapula has four bony processes - acromion, scapula spine, coracoid process and glenoid cavity. The acromion and coracoid process serve as places for attachment of the ligaments and tendons.

The clavicle bone or collarbone is an S-shaped bone that connects the scapula to the sternum or breastbone. It forms two joints: the acromioclavicular joint, where it articulates with the acromion process of the scapula, and the sternoclavicular joint where it articulates with the sternum or breastbone. The clavicle also forms a protective covering for important nerves and blood vessels that pass under it from the spine to the arms.

Soft Tissues of the Shoulder

The ends of all articulating bones are covered by smooth tissue called articular cartilage, which allows the bones to slide over each other without friction, enabling smooth movement. Articular cartilage reduces pressure and acts as a shock absorber during movement of the shoulder bones. Extra stability to the glenohumeral joint is provided by the glenoid labrum, a ring of fibrous cartilage that surrounds the glenoid cavity. The glenoid labrum increases the depth and surface area of the glenoid cavity to provide a more secure fit for the half-spherical head of the humerus.

Ligaments of the Shoulder

Ligaments are thick strands of connective tissue that connect one bone to another. The ligaments of the shoulder joint include:

Coracoclavicular ligaments: These ligaments connect the collarbone to the shoulder blade at the coracoid process.

Acromioclavicular ligament: This connects the collarbone to the shoulder blade at the acromion process.

Coracoacromial ligament: It connects the acromion process to the coracoid process.

Glenohumeral ligaments: A group of 3 ligaments that form a capsule around the shoulder joint and connect the head of the arm bone to the glenoid cavity of the shoulder blade. The capsule forms a watertight sac around the joint. Glenohumeral ligaments play a very important role in providing stability to the otherwise unstable shoulder joint by preventing dislocation.

Muscles of the Shoulder

The rotator cuff is the main group of muscles in the shoulder joint and is comprised of 4 muscles. The rotator cuff forms a sleeve around the humeral head and glenoid cavity, providing additional stability to the shoulder joint while enabling a wide range of mobility. Although from separate muscles, they share a common tendinous attachment helping to hold the head of the humerus in the glenoid, but also providing strength and motion. Their main function is to keep the ball centred in the socket when the major muscles are moving the arm.

Larger muscles cover the rotator cuff and help to move the shoulder and arm, providing the majority of the power. The deltoid muscle is the largest and strongest and drapes over the joint and gives your shoulder its rounded shape. Its main function is in elevation (raising) of the arm. The trapezius muscle connects the side of your neck to your shoulder, assisting with arm elevation and in shrugging your shoulders. The biceps muscle helps to bend (flex) the elbow. It comes from two tendons, one of which passes through the shoulder joint and attaches to the top of the socket. Other major muscles include the pectoralis major (pec), the latissimus dorsi (lat), both attaching just below the shoulder joint to assist with shoulder movements.

Nerves of the Shoulder

Nerves carry messages from the brain to muscles to direct movement (motor nerves) and send information about different sensations such as touch, temperature and pain from the muscles back to the brain (sensory nerves). The nerves of the arm pass through the shoulder joint from the neck. These nerves form a bundle at the region of the shoulder called the brachial plexus. The main nerves of the brachial plexus are the musculocutaneous, axillary, radial, ulnar and median nerves.

Blood vessels of the Shoulder

Blood vessels travel along with the nerves to supply blood to the arms. Oxygenated blood is supplied to the shoulder region by the subclavian artery that runs below the collarbone. As it enters the region of the armpit, it is called the axillary artery and further down the arm, it is called the brachial artery.

The main veins carrying de-oxygenated blood back to the heart for purification include:

Axillary vein: This vein drains into the subclavian vein.

Cephalic vein: This vein is found in the upper arm and branches at the elbow into the forearm region. It drains into the axillary vein.

Basilic vein: This vein runs opposite the cephalic vein, near the triceps muscle. It drains into the axillary vein.