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Shoulder Blade Pain: How to Identify, Relieve, and Prevent It

Shoulder blade pain can affect women and men of any age. This common symptom in the upper back area doesn’t usually require medical attention and goes away on its own. However, sometimes when your scapula aches, it’s a sign you need to visit your doctor.

Possible causes behind the pain

The shoulder blade, or scapula, is usually irritated by sudden and vigorous movements during physical activity. The pain you may feel comes from the surrounding tissue. In most cases, this is a healthy pain; it often signifies that your shoulder blade muscles are getting stronger.

People who mostly lead a sedentary lifestyle may also experience upper back pain between the shoulder blades from time to time. Many of them report the pain after lifting a heavy object or carrying luggage. Inactivity may weaken the muscles that support these triangular bones, which can make shoulder muscles and bones more prone to injury.

When it comes to causes of scapula pain, medical experts recognize two groups. 

Injury, muscle strain, or overuse of the rotator cuff in your shoulders represent the first group of causes. These factors affect your shoulder blades directly. Muscle strain, pain, or discomfort related to the overuse of the rotator cuff is usually benign and passes quickly.

The second group of causes of pain in your shoulder blades includes diseases of the abdomen or chest. This pain differs from the healthy pain that comes from exercising or temporary muscle strain. If you feel pain that is dull, persistent, and poorly localized, you may want to schedule an appointment with a doctor.  

1. Improper posture while working or sleeping

One very common reason for shoulder blade pain is poor posture. When you sit leaning forward at your desk or your computer for a long time, certain back muscles have excess static work. You may also notice scapula pain after sleeping in an odd position or using an uncomfortable mattress.

2. Problems in muscles, bones, and joints

When your rotator cuff tendon rubs or catches on nearby tissue and bone as you lift your arm, it’s called shoulder impingement, which is another very common cause of shoulder pain.

If you are an active athlete, a rotator cuff injury might be the reason for your shoulder blade pain. In rare cases, an accident or sports trauma can cause a broken scapula.

Sometimes, osteoarthritis might be the root cause. Osteoarthritis makes your joints sore and tender. Other diseases that may generate upper back pain between shoulder blades are various disc diseases or fibromyalgia.

3. Heart diseases

On occasion, the inflamed lining around the heart may trigger pain in the left shoulder blade. This dull feeling may help you detect the underlying heart condition in a timely manner.

On the other hand, sudden sharp pain in the left scapula may be a sign of a heart attack. The most important thing, in this case, is getting treatment as soon as possible.

4. Lung diseases

Aching shoulder blades coupled with a cough can be a sign of a bacterial infection or inflamed lung lining. For some people, pain under the shoulder blade may signal lung cancer. Listening to your body will help you detect when something unusual happens, giving you enough time to take the necessary steps for proper treatment. 

5. Other causes

Some health conditions, such as heartburn, peptic ulcer, pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), gallbladder stones, and liver disease, may produce pain in the shoulder blade. Several types of cancer, including colon and breast cancer, may trigger pain in this part of your body.

Left or right shoulder blade pain: any difference in causes?

Certain diseases express their symptoms through the right shoulder blade pain while others through pain in the left shoulder blade. These lists may help you narrow down potential health issues.

Pain in the left shoulder blade:

  • Peptic ulcer 

  • Pancreatitis

  • Heart diseases such as pericarditis, coronary heart disease, and heart attack

Pain under the right shoulder blade:

  • Liver disease
  • Biliary colic caused by gallstones
  • Gallbladder disease
  • Acid reflux
  • Shingles
  • Digestive issues during pregnancy
  • Preeclampsia, a condition that may occur during pregnancy

Treating shoulder blade pain

Whether you experience neck and shoulder pain on the left side or the right side, treatment mostly depends on the particular cause. Before you try any of the suggested methods to alleviate pain, you may want to exclude any possible underlying medical issues.

To do this, your physician can be of great help. After you’ve done all the necessary tests and your doctor is satisfied with the results, go ahead and find out what techniques can relieve tension from your upper back.

Stretch yourself

Stretching exercises may help you remove upper back pain between your shoulder blades. They are especially effective when you do them from the proper posture.

To begin:

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Slightly bend your knees.
  • Pull your shoulders backward, away from your ears.
  • Bring your shoulder blades down. 
  • Stand straight keeping your spine in a neutral position.
  • Stretch the top of your head toward the ceiling and imagine how it makes you taller.
  • Pull your ribs down.
  • Tuck your stomach in.
  • Breathe slowly. 

Now, you may want to try these stretches:

  • Arm stretches — Pull your arms forward, keeping your body aligned. Ensure that your shoulder blades move with them. After a few seconds, pull your shoulder blades back together by bringing your arms back. 
  • Squeeze your shoulder blades together — Stretch your arms out to your sides, bend them with your thumbs pointed toward your shoulders. At the same time, pull your shoulder blades backwards. Hold this position for a few seconds and then stretch your arms out again. 
  • Hug an imaginary ball — Bend your knees and keep your body aligned. Imagine a huge ball in front of you, tilt your pelvis and hug the ball. Hold on for a moment. After that, open up your shoulders and move your arms back.

Additionally, it might be useful for you to stretch your lower back as well. When you treat your body as a whole, your whole body benefits.

Rest your back

In addition to regular exercise, a good rest can also improve your back health. Some of these tips might help you to ensure proper rest for your upper back area:

  • Sleep on your back.
  • Support your knees with a pillow while sleeping.
  • Use a good quality mattress

Consider ice and medication 

Sometimes ice packs, applied for 10–20 minutes several times a day, help to ease pain. Also, medicine like acetaminophen (paracetamol) or ibuprofen can be useful for a short time. Remember that every drug has side effects and limitations.

Get a massage

Massage can be especially helpful for decreasing tension in your back. If the cause of your shoulder blade pain is muscle strain, this method will provide the best results. Your tight muscles will relax, and your sleeping patterns will improve.

Revamp your diet

A healthy diet, especially a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, can help you feel more active and happier. It may also improve your circulation, protect your heart, and facilitate the healing processes in your body. For optimal results, consult your nutritionist or a healthcare provider to help you find a diet plan that is most beneficial to you.

Signs you should see your doctor about your shoulder blade pain

At times, sharp and intense upper back pain in the left shoulder blade may point to a serious health condition. When certain signs appear such as chest pain, irregular heartbeat, difficulty breathing, and too much sweating, call your nearest doctor and get help.

The doctor should take your EKG and will check all your symptoms to ensure that you get the best possible care.

Tips to prevent shoulder blade pain

Besides regular exercise, resting, and following a healthy diet, you may want to apply these additional tips to prevent shoulder blade pain:

  • Maintain proper posture when standing and sitting: stand up straight, with your shoulders back, and sit with a cushion behind your lower back.
  • Find a convenient relaxation technique such as meditation, tai chi, or yoga to relieve unnecessary stress.
  • Maintain healthy sleeping habits.
  • Quit smoking, if you haven’t already.
  • Bend your knees and lift heavy objects using proper form.
  • Always wear a seatbelt.
  • Build your core stability and exercise to strengthen your shoulders and back. 

In most cases, shoulder blade pain goes away on its own. However, even when it’s caused by a serious illness, it can sometimes be prevented by changing your habits. To strengthen your back and shoulders, begin with small steps and gradually increase the intensity. Stick to your new fitness routine and track your progress. Follow this advice to minimize or prevent future shoulder blade pain.

https://www.health.harvard.edu/mens-health/shoulder-shape-up-keep-your-bodys-most-flexible-joint-in-top-condition

https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/avoid-back-pain-and-improve-balance-by-strengthening-core-muscles

https://mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/poor-posture-can-cause-shoulder-pain

https://www.csp.org.uk/system/files/5_shoulder_pain.pdf

https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/shoulder-pain/

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