Pain between the shoulder blades is also known as interscapular pain. It is a symptom that is often caused by minor issues, such as a muscle strain. However, being aware of such symptom is also very important since it may also be a sign of more serious conditions, such as lung cancer or a heart attack.
Experiencing pain may indicate that something is not right in our body, but sometimes, it can be difficult to determine if the pain we feel needs immediate medical attention or just a nuisance. Know what causes pain between the shoulder blades and learn how to prevent this common problem.
Below are some of the common causes of pain experienced between the shoulder blades:
- Muscle Strain: This is one of the most common causes of pain between shoulder blades because of poor posture. It includes sitting or standing for long periods of time, improper sleeping position, heavy or improper lifting, as well as activities that involve twisting such as tennis, golf, and other similar sports.
- Herniated Disc: A herniated disk, also known as a slipped disc, often occurs in the lower back and causes pain and discomfort. It happens when a disc between the vertebrae ruptures or breaks down. Discs are pad-like structures that contain a tough gel-like substance. These discs function as shock absorbers of the spinal column. However, these discs can be damaged by injuries or diseases. If the affected disc is one of the cervical discs, pain and discomfort may be experienced between the shoulder blades. Moreover, there could also be limited arm motion and a painful upper back.
- Gallbladder Disease: People with gallbladder disease may experience referred pain, which may feel like a stabbing pain between the scapulae. Pain may also be felt in the right upper side of the abdomen along with nausea. This symptom often occurs after consuming a fatty meal.
- Heart Attack: Pain between the shoulder blades may also be a sign of a heart attack or an impending heart attack, especially in women. The pain experienced may be accompanied by shortness of breath, chest pain, or lightheadedness. However, the pain felt in the upper back is not usually considered as the most important indicator of a serious heart condition because a heart attack can have a number of symptoms. Any unusual pain experienced should be given careful attention.
- Inflammation Under the Diaphragm: The diaphragm is a sheet of muscle and tendon in the shape of a dome that helps people breathe. When the lungs contract and expand, the diaphragm also moves up and down. When a person breathes, the muscles in the upper back are also involved, and when there is a strain in one of these muscles, breathing can also become painful. When there is inflammation below the diaphragm, the diaphragm's action is also affected, in which it can also indirectly affect the actions of the back muscles. If these affected muscles are forced to abnormally function, pain can be felt when there is motion.
- Spinal Stenosis: It is an abnormal narrowing of the lumbar spinal column. It produces nerve root pressure that results in sciatica, a condition that causes pain along the sciatic nerve course, particularly at the back of the thigh. The narrowing can also occur in the cervical part of the spine either the neck or shoulder level. When the cervical part of the spine is affected, pain may be experienced below the neck and below the shoulder blades. Pain between the shoulder blades is felt when it occurs in the area just below the neck.
- Cervical Spondylosis: It is an age-associated condition that often affects the discs in the cervical spine (in the neck) and the joints. Other terms for this condition are neck arthritis and cervical osteoarthritis. Cervical spondylosis is usually caused by the wear and tear of the bones and cartilage. When there is degeneration of the vertebrae, the nerves from that part of the spine can be pinched, which causes pain in the upper back, neck, and shoulder blades. Spinal stenosis and cervical spondylosis sometimes exist together since the degeneration of the vertebrae can also lead to a narrowing of the spaces within the spine.
- Osteoarthritis: Osteoarthritis can cause pain in the upper back, which can be quite painful when people get up in the morning and then later subsides during the active hours of the day. The pain is initially felt in the area of the spine before radiating to other areas, such as the shoulders. Osteoarthritis is not a systemic inflammatory disease like in the case of rheumatoid arthritis since it usually affects the joints.
Other possible causes may include:
- Trauma: Acromioclavicular (AC) joint separation and rotator cuff tears.
- Cancer: Lung cancer (Pancoast tumor), liver cancer, lymphomas, esophageal cancer, breast cancer, and mesothelioma.
- Entrapment of the Nerve: Myofascial pain syndrome of the rhomboids.
- Acid Reflux: Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), development of esophageal strictures and esophageal cancer, and pancreatitis.
- Scoliosis: Abnormal thoracic spine curvature.
- Pulmonary Embolism: Deep vein thrombosis (DVT)
- Thoracic Compression Fractures: Compression fractures caused by osteoporosis.
- Epidural Anesthesia: Intense shoulder blade pain may be experienced by women who receive an epidural during the active stages of labor or when used for a C-section.
When to See a Doctor
Consult a doctor right away if you are experiencing constant pain that is unusual and severe. Something could be wrong if you continue to feel pain between your shoulder blades, especially if the pain is accompanied by other symptoms. Aside from pain between the shoulder blades, seek immediate medical help if you have any of the following symptoms:
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Leg pain, swelling, or redness
- Excessive sweating
- Hemoptysis (coughing up blood)
- Irregular or rapid heartbeat
- Paralysis on one side of the body
- Difficulty speaking
- Vision loss
- Fainting or loss of consciousness
Treatment for pain between the shoulder blades usually depends on its main cause as well as the severity of the condition. Recovery may also vary from one person to another. Below are some treatment options that can help relieve the pain:
- Medications: NSAIDs, steroids, muscle relaxers, or antidepressants.
- Therapy: Physical therapy or massage therapy.
- Home remedies: Application of cold and hot compresses, and an ample amount of rest.
- Exercise: Pull-ups, push-ups, and sit-ups to help strengthen the back and the abdomen.
- Stretching: Yoga and other forms of stretching exercises.
The following safety measures can help prevent the occurrence of pain between the shoulder blades:
- Avoid lifting heavy objects.
- Maintain good posture and avoid slouching.
- Avoid sitting in one place for too long.
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle.