BACKGROUND: Any cartilage damage to the glenohumeral joint should be avoided, as these damages may result in osteoarthritis of the shoulder. To understand the pathomechanism leading to shoulder cartilage damage, we conducted a systematic review on the subject of articular cartilage lesions caused by traumas where non impression fracture of the subchondral bone is present. METHODS: PubMed (MEDLINE), ScienceDirect (EMBASE, BIOBASE, BIOSIS Previews) and the COCHRANE database of systematic reviews were systematically scanned using a defined search strategy to identify relevant articles in this field of research. First selection was done based on abstracts according to specific criteria, where the methodological quality in selected full text articles was assessed by two reviewers. Agreement between raters was investigated using percentage agreement and Cohen's Kappa statistic. The traumatic events were divided into two categories: 1) acute trauma which refers to any single impact situation which directly damages the articular cartilage, and 2) chronic trauma which means cartilage lesions due to overuse or disuse of the shoulder joint. RESULTS: The agreement on data quality between the two reviewers was 93% with a Kappa value of 0.79 indicating an agreement considered to be 'substantial'. It was found that acute trauma on the shoulder causes humeral articular cartilage to disrupt from the underlying bone. The pathomechanism is said to be due to compression or shearing, which can be caused by a sudden subluxation or dislocation. However, such impact lesions are rarely reported. In the case of chronic trauma glenohumeral cartilage degeneration is a result of overuse and is associated to other shoulder joint pathologies. In these latter cases it is the rotator cuff which is injured first. This can result in instability and consequent impingement which may progress to glenohumeral cartilage damage. CONCLUSION: The great majority of glenohumeral cartilage lesions without any bony lesions are the results of overuse. Glenohumeral cartilage lesions with an intact subchondral bone and caused by an acute trauma are either rare or overlooked. And at increased risk for such cartilage lesions are active sportsmen with high shoulder demand or athletes prone to shoulder injury.