Pain Between Shoulder Blades: Causes and Treatments

By Geoff McKinnen
Last Updated On September 16th, 2020

Shoulder blade pain, also called interscapular pain, is common, though the cause ranges widely, from minor tweaks to medical emergencies. Shoulder pain is characterized by dull, aching, burning, or shooting…

Pain Between Shoulder Blades: Causes and Treatments

Shoulder blade pain, also called interscapular pain, is common, though the cause ranges widely, from minor tweaks to medical emergencies. Shoulder pain is characterized by dull, aching, burning, or shooting sensations. You may also have difficulty using the affected arm(s) or the feeling of a pulled muscle.

Typically, shoulder blade pain is mild and goes away on its own, however, certain conditions potentially cause chronic or severe shoulder pain. This article discusses the numerous causes of shoulder pain, possible treatment options, and how you can prevent future shoulder pain.

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Causes of Shoulder Pain

Usually, shoulder blade pain is not a major concern as it will go away on its own. On rare occasions, shoulder pain may be a sign of a severe medical condition or emergency.

Occasionally, you may have referred pain, which is when pain in one part of your body is caused by a different bodily issue.

Strained Muscles

Muscle strains occur when your muscle fibers stretch and tear, causing localized bruising, swelling, and pain to the affected area. Strains often impact the back, shoulders, and legs and occur when lifting heavy objects improperly, sleeping in an odd position, or completing aggressive workouts.

Overuse of Muscles

Playing sports and exercising may exhaust your muscles and leave them sore. Muscle soreness typically lasts a few days and rarely requires a doctor’s attention.

Poor Posture

Hunching your back, sitting in one position for a prolonged period, or looking down frequently puts stress on your spine and leaves your muscles stiff, tight, and achy. Poor posture is common in people who sit at a desk all day, whether for school or work.

Slipped Disc

Your spine has cartilage cushioning called intervertebral discs. The discs are made up of two parts: a soft and squishy interior and a tough exterior. Strain or injury to your spine can cause the disc to bulge, known as a herniated, slipped, or bulging disc. A slipped disc leads to inflammation, compressed nerves, numbness, and pain in your hands, elbows, and shoulders.

Degenerative disc disease is often caused by a slipped disc. As you age, your spinal discs progressively wear down and lose fluids, leaving them prone to injury.

Scoliosis

Scoliosis is a condition where your spine is unnaturally curved. It causes deformities, muscle spasms, and shoulder and back pain. It’s typically mild and does not require treatment, though depending on the curve, going to physical therapy or wearing a back brace can improve it.

Trauma

Muscle trauma is an injury to your muscle fibers and connective tissues due to a direct or blunt force. It typically causes localized pain, inflammation, and bruising. Muscle trauma is commonly associated with contact sports, falling, or vehicular accidents. The injury is generally mild, though severe tissue damage can prolong recovery.

Gallbladder Removal or Disease

Shoulder pain can be a referred pain caused by gallbladder removal or gallstones.

Laparoscopic Surgery

Commonly used for weight loss, pancreatitis, and cholecystitis, laparoscopic surgery removes your gallbladder. The most common symptom post-laparoscopic surgery is shoulder pain.

Gallstones

Gallstones are hard particles formed in your gallbladder, commonly caused by a high concentration of cholesterol, calcium, or bilirubin in your bile. The symptoms of gallstones include an upset stomach, nausea, indigestion, and shoulder pain.

Arthritis

Arthritis is a chronic condition causing pain, reduced range of motion, and stiffness in your joints, and it typically worsens with age.

Shoulder arthritis occurs when your shoulder cartilage wears down, particularly in the ball and socket joint. Ankylosing spondylitis is arthritis of the spine, though this leads to pain in surrounding areas, such as your shoulder blades.

Pulmonary Embolism

Pulmonary embolism is when blood clots from the legs travel to the lungs. The blood clots block the lung’s arteries, causing shortness of breath and a sudden and sharp pain between your shoulder blades. If you are experiencing these symptoms, call 911 straight away.

Heart Attack

Shoulder pain is a common sign of a heart attack, particularly for women. If you’re having a heart attack, you may also have a shortness of breath or chest pain. If these symptoms occur together, seek medical attention right away.

Aortic Tear

When the blood vessel connected to your heart ruptures or tears, it causes sharp pain in your upper back and shoulders, shortness of breath, and dizziness. Aortic tears can be deadly, so if you or a loved one have these symptoms, get to a doctor or hospital immediately.

Cancer

Certain cancers, such as breast or lung cancer, cause pain between your shoulder blades. Breast cancer may spread to your bones, particularly your neck and spine, and cause pain between your shoulders. On the other hand, lung cancer causes referred pain in your shoulders from the lungs swelling.

Shoulder Pain Treatment

Treating shoulder pain varies based on its cause. Before treatment, your doctor will determine the source of your problem to resolve it adequately. Possible treatments include hot and cold therapy, mild stretching, or prescription medication.

Medication

Over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen or aspirin can relieve the pain between your shoulders. Your doctor may provide steroid pills or an injection to improve your pain and inflammation in some cases. They may also prescribe antidepressants or muscle relaxers to soothe your body.

Stretching

Daily stretching can improve circulation in your shoulder muscles and joints, increasing your mobility and potentially reducing pain. It’s always important to stretch after exercising to prevent injuries, tight muscles, and strains.

Exercise

In addition to stretching, regular exercise is vital for your overall health and wellbeing, but it can also strengthen your upper back, abdominal muscles, and shoulders. By strengthening your muscles, you can relieve and prevent pain.

Rest

Sometimes, overworked muscles just need to recuperate and repair themselves, especially if you’re always completing repetitive motions or pushing your body beyond its limits.

Don’t completely cut out physical activity, as being sedentary is counterproductive. Instead, limit your aggressive exercise and try completing gentler aerobics, including walking or light stretching.

Hot and Cold Therapy

Heat and ice therapy may relieve your discomfort and pain.  Try hot baths, saunas, or heat pads for hot treatment and using cooling sprays, ice packs, or ice baths for cold remedies. Hot and cold gels are easily accessed over-the-counter.

For heat or ice, conduct the treatment in 15 to 20-minute increments. Be sure to take 2-hour breaks between treatments so as not to shock your skin.

Physical Therapy

Your doctor may refer you to physical therapy. There, the physical therapist will evaluate your pain and teach you specific exercises and stretches to improve your symptoms. Your physical therapist may also perform ultrasounds, electrical stimulation, or conduct hot and cold or light therapy if needed.

When to Contact a Doctor

Reach out to your doctor as soon as possible if:

  • Your pain is severe
  • Your arms or hands are numb
  • You cannot use your shoulder or arm
  • Your shoulder is swollen
  • Your pain lasts longer than 12 weeks
  • You were recently injured, potentially by falling, playing sports, or a vehicular accident

Your doctor may ask questions regarding your medical history before completing a physical examination and suggesting treatment options. Your doctor may recommend surgery for severe cases, though nearly all treatments are nonsurgical.

When to Seek Medical Attention

Call 911 immediately if your shoulder pain is paired with any of the following symptoms:

  • Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Lightheadedness
  • Coughing up blood
  • Pain or swelling in legs
  • Loss of vision
  • Irregular heartbeat

This is a sign of a medical emergency and must be tended to as soon as possible.

How To Prevent Shoulder Pain

You can take steps to prevent shoulder pain, muscle strain, and soreness:

  • Avoid reaching overhead frequently: Avoid straining your body to reach high places as much as possible. If you can, use a step stool or ladder when needed and try to keep items in more easily accessible locations.
  • Maintain good posture: When at work or school, do your best not to slouch and keep good posture. You might consider using a seat cushion to help improve your posture when seated. Additionally, don’t sleep in strange positions as it can leave your shoulders sore.
  • Use a high-quality mattress: Along with not sleeping in awkward positions, on an old or a lumpy mattress leads to shoulder pain and affects your sleep. By investing in a supportive mattress, your body’s pressure points (including your shoulders) are better cushioned, in turn preventing pain during the day.
  • Don’t overexert your muscles: If you’re sore, don’t push yourself and fight through the pain as it’ll only worsen and cause injuries. Also, don’t lift heavy objects or push your body beyond its limits. If moving big boxes or heavy furniture, get assistance.
  • Prioritize healthy living: Staying in good physical shape prevents potential injuries, so be sure to exercise regularly and eat a well-balanced diet. As suggested by the World Health Organization, the average adult should have 150 minutes of physical activity per week.
  • Stretch daily: In addition to physical activity, daily stretching improves mobility and soreness. Be sure to always stretch after working out to prevent potential strains or injuries.

FAQs

Can sleeping on your side cause shoulder pain?

If your mattress is too firm, sleeping on your side may cause shoulder pain, leading to inflammation, structural and joint damage.

If you sleep on your side, use a medium mattress firmness to properly cushion your body’s pressure points and prevent any future pain. You can also try getting a soft mattress topper for your current mattress. Also, place a pillow between your knees and use a thick pillow under your head to keep your spine neutral.

Why do I get knots around my shoulder blades?

Muscle knots can be caused by poor posture, being sedentary, muscle strains, dehydration, poor eating, and even stress and anxiety. Knots typically go away naturally, though you can relieve your pain by resting, stretching, self-massaging, and hot and cold therapy.

How long does shoulder pain last?

The longevity of your pain varies depending on its cause. A milder pain, perhaps from straining at the gym or slouching at your desk, should subside within two to four weeks. If your problem is prolonged or the result of an injury, speak with your doctor for treatment.

Is it bad to crack your shoulders?

When your body’s connective tissues stretch and snap, it causes an unsettling sound. These cracking sounds, known as crepitus, are from the release of gas from your joints. Unless cracking your shoulder is accompanied by any pain or swelling, it’s typically not a problem.

Why do my shoulders hurt when I sneeze or cough?

Two potential reasons your shoulders hurt upon sneezing and coughing are:

  • Pleurisy: This is a condition where your lungs and chest become inflamed, causing a sharp pain when you cough, sneeze and breathe. It typically only causes chest pain, but the pain can travel to between your shoulders as well.
  • A spinal disc irritation or injury: When your spinal discs are injured, your nerves are compressed, causing irritation and spasms. Sneezing and coughing puts pressure on your nerves and discs usually, so when they’re irritated, this causes pain in your shoulders and arms.

Conclusion

There are many causes for shoulder blade pain, so it’s essential to reflect on what may be causing it for you, such as recent gallbladder surgery, poor posture, or scoliosis.

Milder issues can generally be resolved with proper rest or home treatments, while more severe conditions or injuries need medical attention. Regardless, always contact your doctor for assistance on how to care for your pain correctly. Never ignore any aches or pains in your body, as they could worsen or potentially lead to chronic conditions.

This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.


About the author

Geoff McKinnen is a writer focusing mainly on the healthcare industry and has written articles on everything from foods to help you lose weight to the connection between Alzheimer’s and sleep. Geoff’s passionate about helping readers improve their well-being to lead happier lives. Outside of work, Geoff enjoys cycling and hiking and believes that by leading a healthy lifestyle, he can help others do the same.

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