Pain between the shoulder blades is common. Doctors refer to this discomfort as interscapular pain.
People with shoulder blade pain typically have aching, dull, sore, or shooting pain in the upper part of their back between their shoulder blades.
Most of the time, shoulder blade pain isn’t anything to worry about. But in some cases, it can be a sign of a more serious condition.
Keep reading to learn more about this common problem and how you can prevent it.
There are many possible causes for pain between your shoulder blades.
An injury to a muscle or tendon is a common reason for this type of pain. Muscle strains can result from:
- heavy lifting
- poor posture
- working at a computer for extended periods of time
- other activities
Sometimes, you can even strain a muscle during sleep.
Injuries to other parts of your body, such as rotator cuff tears, spine fractures, or other injuries that cause trauma, can also lead to pain between your shoulder blades.
Other causes for shoulder blade pain include:
- degenerative disc disease, or a herniated or bulging disc in the spine
- osteoarthritis in the joints around your neck, spine, or ribs
- spinal stenosis, or a narrowing of your spinal cord
- acid reflux
- myofascial pain syndrome
- certain cancers, such as lung cancer, lymphomas, liver cancer, esophageal cancer, mesothelioma, and cancers that spread to bones
- nerve compression
- gallstone, which is often accompanied by nausea and pain in the upper right part of your abdomen
Shoulder blade pain is sometimes a symptom of heart attack, especially among women. Other signs, such as chest pain and shortness of breath, may also be present. You should seek emergency medical treatment if you experience these symptoms.
Thoracic aorta rupture or aortic dissection occurs when you have a tear or rupture in the inner layer of the large blood vessel that branches off your heart. That can cause a sharp, severe pain in your upper middle back. If this happens, you should call your local emergency services right away, as an aortic tear is considered a medical emergency.
Pulmonary embolism is another serious condition that can cause shoulder blade pain. Some people report a sudden, sharp pain in their shoulder blades when blood clots in their legs break off and travel to their lungs. Shortness of breath is also a symptom of pulmonary embolism. Seek medical help right away if you think you have a pulmonary embolism.
When you should see a doctor
You should see a doctor if your pain is severe, unusual, or doesn’t go away. Pain is a sign that something could be wrong. Your condition might not be serious, but if it’s bothersome in any way, you may want to get it checked out.
If your shoulder blade pain is accompanied by certain symptoms, it could mean you have a life-threatening condition that requires prompt medical attention. Seek help right away if you have pain between your shoulder blades along with the following:
- shortness of breath
- chest pain
- excessive sweating
- pain, swelling, or redness in your legs
- coughing up blood
- rapid or irregular heartbeat
- sudden difficulty speaking
- loss of vision
- paralysis on one side of your body
- loss of consciousness
Treatment for your shoulder blade pain will depend on the cause and severity of your condition. Recovery time will vary from person to person.
Some people find relief from shoulder blade pain with therapies performed at home.
Physical activity is important for overall health, but exercise can also strengthen areas in your back, which may help with pain. Pushups, pullups, and situps are good exercises to strengthen muscles in your back and abdomen.
Yoga and other stretching techniques can improve circulation to your muscles and joints, which may offer better mobility and pain relief.
This shoulder stretch sometimes helps:
- Cross one arm over your body.
- Use your other arm to pull the elbow of your outstretched arm toward your chest.
- Hold this stretch for about 10 seconds.
Ask your doctor about other stretches that may lessen your pain.
Certain foods can cause inflammation in your body that could worsen your symptoms. Avoid processed foods, and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Choosing foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, may also help.
Sometimes, you just need rest to recover from your shoulder blade pain, especially if it’s the result of an injury.
Hot or cold therapy
Applying hot and cold compresses between your shoulder blades may relieve discomfort. Typically, it’s best to use them for 15 minutes at a time, every four hours.
Massage or physical therapy may provide relief in many cases, especially if the pain is caused by overuse of your muscles or joints, or an injury.
A massage therapist can work on areas between your shoulder blades to relax muscle tissue. You can also purchase handheld massage devices to use at home.
Physical or occupational therapy
If you have an injury or a compressed nerve, your doctor might recommend physical or occupational therapy. A therapist will help you perform certain exercises that may improve symptoms.
Certain medications can help relieve pain and discomfort between your shoulder blades. These may include anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB). Sometimes, steroids are given as a pill or injection to help with pain and inflammation. Muscle relaxers and even antidepressants are also prescribed for certain conditions involving the shoulder blades.
Although rare, your doctor might recommend surgery if your shoulder blade pain is severe or caused by a treatable injury. This may involve removing scar tissue or repairing tendons in your shoulder or upper back area. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, however, 90 percent of people with shoulder blade pain will respond to nonsurgical options, such as rest, exercise, and medication.
Your outlook will depend on what’s causing your shoulder blade pain and the severity of your condition.
Most of the time, pain between the shoulder blades is a temporary ailment that will go away with rest and proper treatment. However, the discomfort may be a lifelong problem for some people.
Tips for prevention
The following measures can help prevent shoulder blade pain:
- Practice good posture. Try to stand and sit tall, and avoid slouching. You may want to purchase an ergonomic chair or a special pillow to help with spinal and neck alignment.
- Don’t lift heavy items. Heavy lifting can lead to injuries, which could trigger pain between your shoulder blades. Avoid carrying heavy bags on one shoulder. If you do have to lift something, be sure to bend your knees and try not to put too much pressure on your back.
- Don’t sit for too long. Get up and stretch frequently when you’re working at a computer or desk. This can help keep muscles loose. You can also try using a standing desk. There are many options available on Amazon.
- Adopt healthy habits. Be sure to eat whole foods, get seven to eight hours of sleep each night, and exercise at least three days a week. A healthy lifestyle can help you feel more energetic and rested, which can help you manage pain.
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