Shoulder Blade Pain

Written By: Chloe Wilson BSc (Hons) Physiotherapy
Reviewed By: SPE Medical Review Board

Shoulder Blade Pain: Common Causes, Symptoms and Treatment options for scapula pain

Shoulder blade pain is a common problem and can really affect daily life.

There may be an issue in the shoulder blade itself or the surrounding soft tissues, or the pain may be referred from somewhere else such as the neck or lungs.

Scapula pain may be caused by a minor problem such as a muscle strain or simply having slept awkwardly or something serious such as cancer or a heart problem. But how do you tell the difference?

We are going to look at the most common causes of pain in the shoulder blade area so you can work out whether there's a problem with the bones, soft tissues, nerves, an underlying medical problem or it's just down to poor posture. We'll also look at the structure of the shoulder blades and how to treat the problems that can arise..

Causes of Shoulder Blade Pain

There are a number of different things that can cause shoulder blade pain:

  • Bursitis: Constant, dull aching shoulder blade pain with snapping/grating/grinding noise/sensation with arm movements
  • Muscle Problems: Dull ache that gets worse with arm movement and better with rest. Tends to only affect one arm/shoulder
  • Posture: Aching pain between shoulder blades, worse after being in one position for a long time
  • Nerve Problems: Associated with tingling/pins and needles, numbness and weakness. Symptoms often refer to other areas and may affect one or both shoulders/arms
  • Bone Problems: Sudden, severe, sharp localised pain caused by an injury/accident
  • Medical Disorders: Associated symptoms such as feeling unwell, chest pain, dizziness, nausea, weight loss and shortness of breath

Let’s look at each cause of scapula pain in more depth.

1. Scapulothoracic Bursitis 

Common Shoulder Blade Pain Causes: Snapping Scapula aka Scapulothoracic Bursitis

A common cause of shoulder blade pain associated with a snapping, grinding or grating noise when moving the arm is scapulothoracic bursitis, aka snapping scapula syndrome. Around the shoulder blade there are a number of bursa, small, fluid-filled sacs that sit between soft tissues and bone to allow smooth, friction-free movement.

Sitting on the front of the scapula is a large muscle called subscapularis. There are two bursa, one near the top of the scapula and one at the bottom that allow the scapula to glide smoothly over the ribcage.

Inflammation of the bursa, due to factors such as muscle weakness or tightness, poor posture or bony abnormalities can result in a persistent, dull, aching shoulder blade pain and a snapping/grating noise with arm movements. There may also be a lump on the shoulder blade.

Find out more: Snapping Scapula - Causes & Treatment

2. Poor Posture

Spending long periods slumped over in poor posture can lead to upper back pain between the shoulder blades

Poor posture is a really common cause of shoulder blade pain. There's that tell-tale aching between the shoulder blades and in the lower neck often accompanied by stiffness and discomfort.

In a world where we tend to spend lots of time hunched over at a desk, computer, sink or in the garden, poor posture is a common problem. The shoulders round forwards, the chin protrudes, chest and upper back muscles get weak. Areas of the spine stiffen, particularly the lower neck and upper back which can lead to aching shoulder blade pain, particularly across the upper back in between the shoulder blades.

As well as adjusting your sitting position, one of the best things to do to improve your posture is to do strengthening exercises for the shoulder, back and arm muscles. Not only can they help to improve posture they also help to reduce any associated shoulder blade pain.

3. Trigger Points

Another common cause of shoulder blade pain is trigger points. Trigger points are small, tight bands in the muscle fascia which can be extremely sensitive to any touch. They often present as a small pea-sized lump in the muscle.

Trigger points are commonly found around the neck, upper back and shoulder blade area, causing shoulder blade pain usually described as a dull, deep, aching pain which may extend down one arm.

Stretches are a great way to reduce the tightness and resultant shoulder blade pain from trigger points.

4. Muscle Strain

Shoulder blade pain may be caused by muscle problems, nerve problems, bursitis, poor posture, bone problems or a medical disorder

Shoulder blade pain can also be caused by straining the muscles around the neck, shoulder and upper back. This usually develops due to overworking or over-stretching the muscles, most commonly from a new exercise regime, repetitive overhead arm activities like throwing, lifting or carrying something heavy like a backpack, or even sleeping awkwardly.

With a muscle strain there tends to be a dull ache around one or both shoulder blades that gets worse with activity and eases with rest, and the area may be tender to touch. Symptoms from muscle strain don’t usually refer into the arm.

5. Rotator Cuff Tear

A rotator cuff tear can lead to shoulder blade pain

Rotator cuff tears can also cause pain in the shoulder blade too, depending on where the tear is. The rotator cuff is a group of muscles that run between the scapula and the humerus and work together to move the shoulder joint.

If one of the muscles is torn, usually from prolonged repetitive arm work or an injury, there will most likely be pain around the shoulder which may refer down the arm and to the shoulder blade region, but usually only on one side. Tears may develop suddenly with an injury, or gradually with degeneration

Rotator cuff tears usually cause a deep, dull, aching pain across the shoulders and shoulder blade and crepitus (popping/cracking noises) that get worse with arm movements. Arm weakness may also develop. 

Find Out More: Rotator Cuff Tears - Causes & Treatment

6. Neural Problems

It is fairly common for shoulder blade pain to originate from irritation of the nerves that come from the neck or upper back. These nerves commonly refer pain to the shoulder blade area and may be accompanied by tingling, pins and needles, numbness and/or weakness.

Your spinal cord runs down the centre of the spine, with nerves branching out at each spinal level which extend out like flexible wires. Signals run up and down the nerves to and from the spinal cord and brain controlling movement and sensation (touch). 

There are a number of different things that can cause nerve damage which results in shoulder blade pain:

  • Disc Disease
  • Spinal Stenosis
  • Brachial Neuritis
  • T4 Syndrome

Let's have a quick look at each of these neural causes of shoulder blade pain.

Disc Disease

Between each bone in your spine (vertebra) sits a squashy disc – think of it like a jam donut. This creates space and cushioning between the bones and ensures there is minimal pressure on the nerves where they come out of the spine.

Two common problems develop in the discs that can lead to shoulder blade pain:

Spinal disc disease such as a herniated disc can place pressure on the nerve and result in shoulder blade pain

Disc Protrusion: aka herniation or slipped disc. This is when a tear develops in the outer layer of the disc (the edge of the donut). As a result the central part of the disc known as the nucleus (think of it like the jam in the donut) bulges out of the disc. In severe cases it may even seep out, known as herniation. Both can place pressure on the nerve resulting in irritation and neck, shoulder and scapula pain. In most cases, this is a gradual process, but it can be caused by an injury such as heavy lifting.

There is often an unhelpful misconception that the discs slip in and out of place, but that is actually impossible as they are held tightly in place. The discs can be stretched, squeezed and twisted, but they do not “slip”. The term slipped disc refers to the movement of the nucleus of the disc (the jam), not the disc itself. 

Disc Degeneration: As we age, the disc starts to dehydrate, weakens, thins and essentially shrinks. This decreases the space between the vertebrae (which explains why we shrink as we age) which can place pressure on the nerves, and increases the risk of disc protrusion. An increase in pressure on the nerves can lead to neck, shoulder and scapula pain.

Classic symptoms of disc disease include pain, pins and needles/tingling, numbness and weakness all of which may spread to the shoulder blade and down the arm (usually one side only). Symptoms typically get worse with activities such as coughing or sneezing, and neck movements NB there may not be any pain in the neck, even if that is where the problem originates from

You can find out lots more about the causes, symptoms and treatment in the nerve pain section.

Spinal Stenosis

Shoulder blade pain from spinal stenosis develops when there is abnormal narrowing of the spinal canal - the space in the middle of the vertebra through which the spinal cord passes. Spinal stenosis may be caused by aging, arthritis, spinal instability, trauma or may be hereditary.

Symptoms of spinal stenosis tend to be at their worst when standing and include shoulder, arm, hand and shoulder blade pain, numbness, weakness, balance problems and in severe cases can affect bladder and bowel function. In most cases, symptoms are bilateral (on both sides).

Brachial Neuritis

Brachial Neuritis can cause shoulder, arm and shoulder blade pain

One of the rarer causes of shoulder blade pain is Brachial Neuritis. It is a rare condition where there is inflammation of the brachial plexus, an area where the nerves from the bottom of the neck pass across the front of the chest. It may develop due to genetics or an abnormality in the immune system.

Symptoms of brachial neuritis usually develop suddenly, most commonly at night causing stabbing/sharp shoulder pain that may spread to neck, arm and shoulder blade pain. Pain from brachial neuritis usually gets worse with any arm movement, and after a few days/weeks, weakness develops which can lead to scapula winging, making it hard to move the arm normally. Sensation may also be affected with tinging or numbness. There tends to be little respite from the symptoms of brachial neuritis and the pain may only respond to strong painkillers.

Find Out More: Brachial Neuritis - Causes, Treatment & Recovery

Upper Thoracic Syndrome

Upper Thoracic Syndrome, aka T4 syndrome, is a rare condition that results in a complex pattern of painful symptoms including shoulder blade pain. It typically affects people between ages of 20-40.

The thoracic spine forms the middle and upper back area, starting just below the neck. There are 12 thoracic bones (vertebra). T4 syndrome typically refers to damage or irritation around the fourth thoracic vertebra, although the problem may come from anywhere between T2-T7. 

Symptoms of upper thoracic syndrome usually affect one arm, but can sometimes affect both, and tend to include diffuse (meaning it’s hard to pinpoint where the pain is coming from) arm, neck and shoulder blade pain, tingling/pins and needles/numbness, stiffness, muscle spasms and headaches. Pain often gets worse when pressure is applied directly to the T4 vertebra.

T4 syndrome symptoms tend to worse at night and are exacerbated by any movements of the upper and middle back such as twisting, bending, laughing, coughing and activities such as driving where the arms are reaching forwards and lifting. T4 syndrome is thought to be caused by factors such as stiffness, hypermobility, poor posture, repetitive bending/heavy lifting.

7. Shoulder Fractures

The shoulder blades are one of the most difficult bones in the body to break, so fractures here are very rare. It is basically impossible to break your shoulder blade without knowing about it, and it most commonly occurs due to a fall, collision or a motor vehicle accident. There is usually sudden, severe, sharp pain accompanied by an audible snap/pop/click sound and there is often a visible deformity. Shoulder blade pain usually worsens with any pressure over the scapula such as lying on your back

Scapular fractures usually cause severe shoulder blade pain and are often accompanied by other injuries which may be serious such as rib fractures and lung injuries.

Find Out More: Shoulder Fractures: Causes, Types & Treatment

8. Medical Issues

Organ disorders can often cause referred shoulder blade pain. They will usually have other accompanying symptoms as well, so if your only complaint is pain in the shoulder blade area, it is unlikely to be caused by any of these.

Common medical conditions that cause shoulder blade pain include:

Heart Problems

Common location of pain with a heart attack - upper back, between the shoulder blades

People typically think of heart problems being associated with chest pain and left arm pain, but shoulder blade pain is often a reported symptoms with heart problems, particularly in women. 

The most common heart problem that causes pain in the shoulder blade area is a heart attack, where there is decreased blood flow to the heart either due to a clot or bleeding. Other heart problems that can cause shoulder blade pain include pericarditis - inflammation of the lining of the heart, and aortic dissection - a tear in the aorta, the main artery that carries blood away from the heart.

If your chest and/or shoulder blade pain are severe, come on suddenly, are accompanied by dizziness, shortness of breath, rapid pulse, sweating, chest tightness or nausea, call 911 immediately. Heart problems are often a medical emergency – seek treatment immediately. 

Lung Problems

Lung problems can also lead to referred shoulder blade pain. Lung problems that are often associated with pain in the shoulder blade area include:

  • Pancoast Tumours: a type of lung tumor that grows on the top part of the lungs. Usually affects smokers and is associated with feeling generally unwell, weight loss and eye problems

  • Pleurisy: inflammation of the lung lining – typically causes sharp chest pain when breathing deeply which may refer to the shoulder/shoulder blades

  • Pneumothorax: a collection of air between the lung and the chest wall (pleural cavity) which causes part of the lung to collapse. Usually presents with sudden pain and shortness of breath and there may be a sharp pain between shoulder blades

Cancer

Some types of cancer spread to the bone known as metastases. Cancers that typically spread to the scapula causing shoulder blade pain include breast cancer, lung cancer, colon cancer and oesophageal cancer.

Shoulder blade pain from metastases is usually worse at night and will be accompanied by fatigue, weight loss, nausea and lack of appetite. 

Abdominal Conditions

Problems in the abdominal organs can result in referred shoulder blade pain. Left shoulder blade pain may be caused by pancreatitis or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and right shoulder blade pain may be due to gallstones, peptic ulcers and liver disease such as liver cancer. 

Shoulder Blade Anatomy

The shoulder blades are an integral part of the shoulder joint, also known as the scapula. 

Shoulder blade anatomy - the left scapula viewed from the side

The main bulk of the bone is triangular in shape and sits over the back of the ribcage, but there are three protrusions at the top:

  1. Glenoid Fossa: a shallow cavity that fits with the top of the upper arm bone (humerus) forming the shoulder joint (a ball and socket joint)
  2. Acromion: An oblong projection over the top of the shoulder that forms a bridge over the rotator cuff muscles and forms a joint with the collar bone (clavicle)
  3. Coracoid Process: a smooth hook shaped protrusion at the front of the shoulder

Eighteen different muscles attach to different parts of the shoulder blade, and each scapula can move:

  • Up and Down - elevation and depression
  • Forwards and Backwards - protraction and retraction 
  • Twist - upward and downward rotation 

What Next?

If you are suffering from shoulder blade pain, get checked out by your doctor, particularly if you are feeling unwell. If your pain extends into the shoulder or down the arm, visit the shoulder pain diagnosis section for help working out what is wrong.

Many causes of scapula pain improve with exercises to improve the strength and mobility of the shoulder. Visit the shoulder exercises section to find the best exercises to help you beat your shoulder blade pain.

Page Last Updated: 05/01/2022
Next Review Due: 05/01/2024


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