When the area between your shoulders becomes painful, your entire life can be difficult. It may be hard to pull groceries out of your car or your child out of their car seat. You may have troubles sleeping or working. No matter how you’re experiencing pain between your shoulder blades, there is help. This article breaks down pain between shoulder blades, explaining what it is, what causes it, and how you can treat it.
What is shoulder blade pain?
Your shoulder blades are the big flat bones in your upper back. Their official name is scapulae, and when you feel pain between them in the upper back, it’s called intrascapular pain.
Each scapula is attached to your clavicle, or collarbone. Combined with various upper back muscles and ligaments, the scapulae enable you to move your arms and shoulders.
Shoulder blade pain may feel very different depending on the cause. For some, it can feel like stabbing, burning, or shooting pain, a combination of those, or something else entirely. In some cases, the pain might radiate down your arms, affecting your ability to move and use those limbs. You may feel it in your neck and jaw. And sometimes you might feel tingling or numbness rather than pain.
What are common causes of pain between shoulder blades? 6 causes
Pain can be especially nerve-wracking when you’re not sure what’s causing it.
These are some of the possible reasons why you may be experiencing shoulder blade pain. However, this information can’t replace an official diagnosis from a physician. If your pain between shoulder blades won’t go away after a few days or it’s severe, see your doctor as soon as possible.
Arthritis is a very common condition. The CDC reports that 54.4 million people in the United States have received an official arthritis diagnosis. There are over 100 different kinds of arthritis, with the most common being osteoarthritis.
Common risk factors for arthritis include:
- Age (older people are more likely to develop arthritis than younger people)
- Being female
Osteoarthritis in the shoulder can lead to stiffness, decreased range of motion, and nighttime shoulder pain.
Also called subacromial bursitis, shoulder bursitis occurs when the protective sacs, or bursae, in your joints become irritated or inflamed.
This can lead to shoulder pain when you perform specific movements, such as raising your arm to the side or pressing down on the affected shoulder. Common causes of bursitis include injury, arthritis, and repetitive movements.
3. Mental stress
Not all pain has a direct physical cause. A 2004 study published in The Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry shows that mental or emotional distress can result in physical aches and pains.
Although illnesses like depression are classified as mental health issues, they do have physical components, including pain. Even after you receive treatment for your mental illness, the physical symptoms may not go away if they are not specifically treated.
None of this means that your pain is “all in your head.” It is very real and should be treated as such.
4. Physical stress
People in the United States spend far too much time sitting down. Worse, a lot of that time involves hunching over a computer without changing positions. In addition to causing dangerous conditions like obesity and cardiovascular disease, too much sitting and hunching can wreak havoc on your neck, shoulders, and upper back.
But you don’t have to be sitting down to put extra stress on your upper back. Text neck is a relatively new medical condition caused by leaning over to look at gadgets like smartphones and tablets. If you spend several hours a day texting or performing other activities on your phone, and if your upper back pain is accompanied by neck pain, you may have text neck.
This is a chronic condition that can affect many parts of the body. Although the symptoms most often associated with fibromyalgia are pain and tenderness, it can also disrupt sleep and cause depression and anxiety.
Fibromyalgia is another cause of pain that may be brought on by psychological factors. For example, post-traumatic stress disorder is a known risk factor for fibromyalgia. You may also be at greater risk of developing fibromyalgia if you’ve suffered a previous injury or infection.
You probably already know whether or not you’ve injured your upper back lately. Perhaps your job requires a lot of strenuous, repetitive arm movements. Or perhaps you felt a sudden flash of pain while exercising. In the latter case, your pain may resolve on its own within a few days. However, you should see a doctor immediately if you feel that a bone has shifted out of place, or if your pain gets worse or does not improve after a few days. If the pain is severe and interfering with your daily life, you should also speak to a doctor immediately.
In other cases, an injury can result in something more serious, such as a tear. Tears are muscle injuries that accumulate over time. The most common tear that affects the shoulders is a rotator cuff tear. Aside from pain, symptoms include weakness, decreased range of motion, and tenderness.
What to do for pain between shoulder blades: 8 treatments
There are numerous ways to treat pain between shoulder blades. These range from inexpensive at-home solutions to invasive treatments that require professional intervention. You should always talk with a doctor before starting any kind of treatment plan.
These are some of the more common treatments for upper back pain and shoulder blade pain that your doctor may recommend, or that you may wish to bring up to your doctor at your next appointment.
Above all, remember to be patient with yourself. Depending on the severity of your pain, it can take weeks or months for you to fully heal. Dealing with pain is tough, so don’t push yourself too hard, and ask for help and support when you need it.
Alter your routine
If you’re suffering from persistent or chronic pain between shoulder blades, you may need to alter your daily routine.
Repetitive movements are responsible for many cases of shoulder blade pain. If you engage in a hobby (e.g. tennis or violin playing) that involves a lot of repetitive shoulder movements, you might consider diversifying your leisure activities to give your shoulders a rest.
Further, if your job requires you to perform repetitive movements or put a lot of pressure on your shoulders, see if it’s possible to take some time off from work to recover. If your shoulder pain is particularly chronic and severe, talk to your boss about modifying your job duties.
In any event, your afterwork routine should definitely involve some TLC for your shoulder. The rest of this article contains several suggestions on how you can care for shoulder pain at home.
Change how you sleep
A good night’s rest is critical to maintaining good health. But shoulder blade pain can make it impossible to get any real sleep. In fact, lying on your injured shoulder can make pain worse.
To remedy this, find a sleeping position that feels good and stick with it. Moving around too much at night could further strain your shoulder.
Try heat and cold therapy
Heat and/or cold therapy is a common, relatively cheap, and often effective method of pain relief. Typically cold therapy is best after an acute injury. Hot therapy may help with types of chronic pain, like arthritis. Always talk to your doctor to see what would work best for you.
Something as simple as a hot shower may alleviate pain. Ice wraps and packs can also help. Regardless of which method you use, be careful not to allow the temperature to get too hot or too cold, and don’t keep the treatment on your skin for too long. You could end up burning yourself. If you use a store-bought product, be sure to follow all instructions.
Perform shoulder stretches and exercises
Stretching and exercising not only feel good, they can also reduce your shoulder pain in some cases. The cause of your pain between shoulder blades will dictate what kind of exercises you should do. For example, Heathline recommends a specific set of exercises to relieve text neck pain.
Speaking more generally, yoga is a gentle form of exercise that can increase flexibility and strength. Stronger muscles are better able to cope with everyday stressors and heal faster from injuries.
Whatever sort of exercise you choose to do, take it slow at first, especially if you aren’t used to regular exercise. The minute you feel sharp pain or discomfort, stop. You can either set a specific time to exercise every day, perform your exercises when your pain is at its lowest, or both.
Look into medication
Over-the-counter pain relievers like Tylenol or Advil can help you get through high-pain days, but don’t take more than the recommended dose and always take them under your doctor’s care.
If depression or another mental illness is the source of your shoulder pain, an antidepressant or anti-anxiety medicine may also help. Again, talk with your doctor or psychiatrist if this sounds like an option you wish to pursue.
Learn more about chiropractic care
Be sure to talk with your doctor before making an appointment with a chiropractor. Once you get the okay, you can begin researching chiropractors in your area. Your doctor may even refer you to someone.
A chiropractor can manipulate the joints that are bothering you, potentially providing much-needed pain relief. While there is not yet strong evidence to show chiropractic is effective in cases of shoulder pain, it is considered safe so long as the chiropractor has the proper training and experience. For some types of pain, this can be a helpful and noninvasive therapy to relieve pain.
Practice physical therapy
Physical therapists are specially trained to help you reduce and manage your pain. During your first visit with a physical therapist, they will examine you and determine which course of treatment will work best for you. Their recommendations may include any combination of the therapies mentioned previously in this post, in addition to any other treatments they deem necessary.
Regular appointments with a physical therapist can have many benefits, including pain reduction, increased strength, and increased range of motion in the affected area. Not only is physical therapy a common treatment in its own right, it is also helpful for patients recovering from surgery.
Consider shoulder injections and surgery for severe or chronic pain
The prospect of both of these treatments may sound scary, but the vast majority of cases involving pain between shoulder blades can be effectively treated with less drastic options. In the unlikely event that you do end up needing these treatments, here is what you can expect.
Cortisone injections are used to reduce inflammation in an affected area, such as the shoulder joint. They therefore tend to be recommended in cases of arthritis or bursitis, since these conditions both involve inflammation of the joints. Steroids can also be taken orally.
While generally safe, cortisone can have serious side effects if administered improperly. You’ll want to discuss this option thoroughly with your doctor before deciding whether or not cortisone injections are right for you.
Surgery may be necessary if your shoulder blade pain does not abate, gets worse over an extended period of time, or occurs due to a severe injury. For example, in extreme cases of bursitis, your doctor may recommend removing the bursa all together.
Again, surgery and injections are both last resorts. Your doctor will typically suggest less radical, noninvasive treatments before considering either of them. If you do undergo shoulder injections or surgery, you’ll likely complement the procedures with other less-invasive options like physical therapy, heat/cold therapy, and exercise. And, by using surgeries or injections, some patients can truly get their lives back after suffering in pain for years.
If you are in Arizona and want a life with less pain, click below to contact our team. We’re dedicated to helping our patients through a combination of minimally-invasive therapies and cutting-edge treatments to help them reduce pain and get back to their life.
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