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Long Lasting Shoulder Pain After Flu Shot

The CDC states side effects from a flu shot are generally mild and go away within a few days. Some of our readers are left with long lasting shoulder pain.

Getting a flu shot is supposed to be your best protection against influenza. Since September we have all been encouraged to get our flu shot. Most of the reports we have seen this year suggest that this could be an especially nasty year for influenza. That’s partly because the Australians really suffered, and they have a six-month lead on us. Then there are questions about the match between the vaccine and the actual flu viruses that are circulating. But one thing you will likely not read about is long lasting shoulder pain triggered by a flu shot.

Mums the Word on Flu Shot Side Effects:

The CDC tends to play down any complications from the influenza vaccine. We’re not quite sure why that is. Here is what these public health officials state about adverse reactions: 

“Do flu vaccines cause any side effects?

“Like any medical product, vaccines can cause side effects. Side effects of the flu vaccine are generally mild and go away on their own within a few days.

“Common side effects from the flu shot include:

• Soreness, redness, and/or swelling from the shot
• Headache
• Fever
• Nausea
• Muscle aches”

What the CDC Does Not Tell You About Flu Shots:

Rarely, if ever, are people told how the influenza vaccine should be administered. The assumption is that whoever gives you the shot has been well trained. That may not always be true.

Years ago, most flu shots were administered by nurses or even doctors. Now, many people get their vaccinations at the pharmacy.

Starting early in the fall, the signs come up promoting influenza vaccines, sometimes even for free. If you take advantage of such an offer, make sure the person who gives you the shot knows how to do it correctly. Read on to find out why that’s important!

A Pharmacist Suffered Long Lasting Shoulder Pain:

We got this message from a pharmacist who had a bad experience from a flu shot:

“I don’t always get the flu shot, but I was training an intern and I thought I would let him give me a flu shot. I am a pharmacist and we are pushed to make vaccine quotas. With an intern helping, the demand is less burdensome.

“I told him to give the shot in the thickest portion of the deltoid as I was trained to do. He was trained, as many are now, to give the shot in the triangle at the high part of the upper arm.

“The shot did not cause discomfort initially, but over the course of several months, I have been experiencing more pain. At first it was mainly at night, but now I have pain throughout the day as well. The discomfort is in the arm and not at the joints.

“I am required to meet a specific quota of flu shots this year and people often ask, ‘Did you get yours?’ I tell them I had a bad reaction and it is no longer recommended for me. I believe that technique was responsible, not the immunization itself.”

A Nurse Suffered Long Lasting Shoulder Pain:

Pharmacists are not the only ones who may have a problem.

We also heard from a nurse:

“As a nurse, I am required to get the flu vaccine. I did so this year in September at my local drugstore. I started experiencing pain the next day, and now, approximately a month later, I have limited range of motion above my head, a constant pain throughout the day and if I roll over on my left side at night, the pain wakes me up.

“I reported this to my physician four days ago. He said, ‘It’s probably a pinched nerve in your neck.’

“When I mentioned the possibility of an adverse reaction to the flu vaccine or the technique, he immediately dismissed the idea. This is NOT a normal reaction to the flu vaccine. I’d like to get the word out to the public, especially physicians.”

SIRVA: Long Lasting Shoulder Pain After a Flu Shot

Some doctors already recognize the problem of long lasting shoulder pain. They even have a name for pain in the shoulder or upper arm following a vaccination. They call it SIRVA: shoulder injury related to vaccine administration (Canadian Family Physician, Jan. 2019). 

The cause is apparently missing the deltoid muscle where the intramuscular injection should be given. Experts urge vaccinators to use a “landmark” technique rather than relying on “eyeball” measurement. The upper edge of the deltoid is two to three finger widths below the acromion at the very top of the arm. (People with thick fingers should use two, those with slender fingers three.)

The armpit marks the lower border for a good injection. The needle should be held at a 90 degree angle to the arm, with the thumb and forefinger in a V keeping the deltoid muscle visible during the injection.

Was that confusing? We’re not surprised. It can be challenging to imagine where the shot should be administered.

Clear directions and an informative graphic can be found in the article found in Canadian Family Physician. We urge every vaccinator to read it carefully. We also think that patients should become familiar with the proper technique and make sure the person who is giving the shot knows how to do it correctly. Here is a link to the pdf format of that article:

It might be a good idea to print out the graphic and show it to the shot administrator. Make sure they know precisely where the “sweet spot” is before you let them stick you!

More Stories of Shoulder Pain from Flu Shots:

We are not totally convinced that every story of long lasting shoulder pain is due to bad technique. The newer, more potent vaccines may also have something to do with it. Here are a few more reader stories:

This comes from Sally:

“My shoulder hurt right after the shot was given. The shot itself hurt to the point I was about to yell out a big ole ‘OWW That’s Enough!’

“The pain has moved from the front of my shoulder to covering the whole top of it, to the tip of my deltoid! The pain moves to a different place every day! It’s so creepy. I can’t rake the yard or sweep a floor unless I want to be in 100% complete agony for two days afterward.

“If I get on the treadmill at the gym or do any exercise at all, it sets it off so bad that I feel like I am giving birth to an alien species through my arm! I have had an X-ray, MRI and I am now on my way to physical therapy. Everyone is stumped.

“I just want to be able to drive myself around, pull up the blankets on my bed with my left arm without searing pain like I just ripped my arm open. I want the mysterious strange worm-like jolts to stop. I swear some days it feels like there is something crawling or wiggling around in there. Getting the flu for two weeks is far better than the six months of pure hell I am going through!”

Mark has also experienced long lasting shoulder pain:

“I had a flu shot administered at my allergist’s office months ago. My wife noted that the bandage that covered the shot was extremely high but I ignored it as trivial. That night the pain started like an engine on a racetrack.

“After a week of tolerating the pain I went back to my allergist who, with great concern, sent me to an orthopedist. I was given a prescription for a week of prednisone. It was no better than taking an aspirin. I went back for another visit, and an MRI was the next step after a shot of cortisone was injected. Within a day there was relief, and I could sleep again.

“In the ninth week the pain has returned once again. The next thing is physical therapy. I hope that works. I went from a very active person to one who moves with unyielding shoulder pain and a docile life style. I watched the pharmacist at a local CVS administering shots and noticed not one single shot was anywhere near where I got mine.

“I am concerned that I was told it was ‘just how my body reacted to it!’ Funny how weekly allergy shots for 15 years and yearly flu shots never caused such a problem. All of a sudden I am told it’s my body’s fault.”

Here is Sharon’s story:

“I received a flu shot at my local big-name pharmacy in 2017. Everything was fine until two weeks later when suddenly my arm became extremely painful. I was unable to lift it, and it felt like something was twisting inside. When this happened, I received a severe jolt that really hurt.

“I tried acupuncture, massage and a chiropractor, all to no avail. I was unable to use my arm to drive and also could not lie on that side. It even hurt when I wasn’t lying on that side but at least it was bearable. I’m slowly getting better but doubt if I’ll ever be back to normal.”

Reporting Vaccine Adverse Reactions:

Did you know that the CDC encourages patients to report flu shot problems? Here is what this public health agency states:

“What should I do if I think I am having a severe reaction to a flu vaccine?

“If you think it is a severe allergic reaction or other emergency that can’t wait, call 9-1-1 and get to the nearest hospital. Otherwise, call your doctor.

“Afterward, the reaction should be reported to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS).

 “Your doctor might file this report, or you can do it yourself through the VAERS websiteexternal icon, or by calling 1-800-822-7967.”

Here is the website to file a report.

What If You Have Been Harmed by a Flu Shot?

“If you believe you have been injured by a flu vaccine you may be eligible to receive compensation from the federal government for your injuries if certain criteria are met. To learn more visit the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program websiteexternal icon or call 1-800-338-2382.”

How Many Have been Harmed?

We have been trying to find out how many people have been harmed and/or compensated for flu vaccine injuries. What was the nature of the injury? This information is not that easy to locate. This is the best we could come up with about vaccines in general. We wonder how many people know about the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program.

“According to the CDC, from 2006 to 2017 over 3.4 billion doses of covered vaccines were distributed in theU.S. For petitions filed in this time period, 6,571 petitions were adjudicated by the Court, and of those 4,525 were compensated. This means for every 1 million doses of vaccine that were distributed, approximately 1 individual was compensated.

“Since 1988, over 21,491 petitions have been filed with the VICP [Vaccine Injury Compensation Program]. Over that 30-year time period, 18,473 petitions have been adjudicated, with 7,044 of those determined to be compensable, while 11,429 were dismissed. Total compensation paid over the life of the program is approximately $4.2 billion.”

Share Your Story About Shoulder Pain or…

Share your own flu shot story below. Was your influenza vaccine uneventful? Have you experienced long lasting shoulder pain? Have you reported your adverse reaction from a vaccine to the VAERS system? Please let others know about your experience in the comment section below.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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  • Bancsi, A., et al, "Shoulder injury related to vaccine administration and other injection site events," Canadian Family Physician, Jan. 2019, PMCID: PMC6347325
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