Pain between shoulder blades: Causes, symptoms, and treatments

Pain between shoulder bladesExperiencing some kind of pain between the shoulder blades may not seem like a very serious experience. You may have had a rough sleep that night or maybe worked out a bit too hard, so you immediately think that the pain must be a result of some kind of physical stress or activity.

Though it is possible for upper back pain between the shoulder blades to simply be related to muscles, there are instances when it can be much worse. Your facet joints could be swollen, you can have a herniated disc, or the pain in-between your shoulders could actually be something called biliary colic. If this is the case, it’s potentially very serious. A gallstone blocking one of your body’s bile ducts is what initiates the pain and leads to this condition.

Causes of pain between shoulder blade


Back pain is fairly common for many adults. It’s a quite frequent complaint, especially as our society has become even more sedentary in our work life and our home life. And most of the time, when you do feel slight pain in your back, the instance can be explained away rather simply. Lower back pain is far more typical, and because the pain between the shoulder blades in your back is so specific, it should raise an eyebrow and be taken with a slight bit more attention to ensure that nothing is seriously wrong.

But, as mentioned, there are so many different causes to pain in-between the shoulder blades. Some of the most standard include the following:

Bad posture: How many times growing up have you been told to sit up straight by a parent or teacher? Seemed like more of a respect thing back then, but there’s actually physical benefits to not slouching. When you do hunch over, it puts excess strain on your back muscles to carry the displaced weight. Your muscles become fatigued or inflamed more quickly, and the pain sinks in. All this could have been avoided by keeping your back straight as often as possible.

Herniated discs: When one of the discs in your vertebrae breaks down, it causes what is referred to as a herniated disc. The pain from a herniated disc is usually restricted to the lower back, but not exclusively. If the cervical disc is one of the discs damaged, then the pain can be felt in the upper back. It usually takes some kind of disease or a physical injury for your disc to become damaged.

Impending heart attack: This may not sound like it makes sense, but it does. Although upper back pain is not a reliable indicator of a heart attack, it should still be considered, particularly in women. Heart attacks tend to start off with a pain in the chest that extends out through the arms before making its way to the shoulders and back. Again, this means upper back pain doesn’t necessarily predict a heart attack, but any odd pain should be managed carefully.

Spinal stenosis: When parts of the spinal cord becomes unusually narrow, it is referred to as spinal stenosis. The narrowing can happen anywhere along the spinal cord, though the upper region around the neck and the lower regions of the backbone are most common. This triggers a numbness in the inflicted area, and pain can spread to as far as the legs. Spinal stenosis is very serious, especially if it is allowed to continue compressing the spinal cord. And at its worst, spinal stenosis can require surgery to remedy the issue.

Osteoarthritis: The symptoms associated with this are very similar to a condition called cervical spondylosis. Osteoarthritis is at its worst during the mornings and evenings with the majority of the pain focused on the upper back. There will also be stiffness in the shoulder regions, which is a symptom not common to cervical spondylosis. Because of the time of day this occurs, it can be brushed off easily as something related to poor sleep or fatigue. This is usually not the case.

Trauma: This includes acromioclavicular joint separation and rotator cuff tears, which are conditions that may result in pain between the shoulder blades following an acute injury.

Cancer: Certain cancers such as Pancoast tumors may cause radiating pain felt between the shoulder blades as it pushes on nerves near the top of the lungs. Other cancers that can cause a similar presentation include esophageal cancer, mesothelioma, lymphomas, and liver cancer. Also, when cancer metastasizes, it can spread to the bone, possibly causing pain between the shoulder blades.

Gallbladder disease: Often causes pain in the upper right quadrant of the abdomen, which can be referred as stabbing pain between the shoulder blades. These symptoms often occur after eating a fatty meal.

Nerve entrapment: A medical condition caused by direct pressure on a nerve. It can occur in conditions like myofascial pain syndrome of the rhomboids.

Acid reflux: A condition caused by the incomplete closing of the lower esophageal sphincter causing stomach acid to escape up into the esophagus. If it occurs for long enough, it may become a condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which can cause referred pain to the back, in the region between the shoulder blades. Untreated GERD has been associated with the development of cancer in the long term.

Shingles: Caused by the same virus as chickenpox, shingles is a reactivation of the infection. It typically presents with a painful rash along the side of the abdomen but can appear nearly anywhere on the body, including between the shoulder blades.

Pulmonary embolus: Due to a blood clot traveling from the leg (deep vein thrombosis) and into the lung. This is a medical emergency, as a pulmonary embolus can happen suddenly and can be life-threatening. Pain is often sharp and sudden in onset, typically associated with severe shortness of breath.

Signs and symptoms of pain between shoulder blades

As mentioned, the specific nature of back pain between the shoulder blades makes it something that should not be ignored. We’ve outlined some of the possible outcomes of what that pain might entail, and all of those require you to take more action than just “taking it easy.” Below are some of the more common symptoms of back pain between the shoulder blades that you should be aware. Any of these by themselves or in conjunction means you should at the least consult with a doctor or medical professional.

  • Chronic pain that lasts for anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. That should not be seen as normal.
  • Any sharp explosions of pain in the area.
  • If the pain starts out in-between your shoulder blades, then extends out to other areas of your back and even your arms, there’s probably an issue.
  • Almost stabbing-like pain in-between the shoulder blades is another indicator.
  • Lingering pain that stays with you throughout the day, every day.

Again, either of these symptoms are not to be taken lightly. Better to find out what’s wrong early rather than wait till the condition worsens. Know the signs and act on them immediately.

Treatment options for pain between shoulder blades

Treatment for the pain between shoulder blades depends on the severity and the outlying condition. Some of the treatment options involve activities or exercises you can do at home to help manage the pain. After first confirming with a doctor to diagnose the source of your pain you can move on to try some of these remedies.

Stretching – A cat stretch to be more precise. It involves rounding your shoulders while pushing your spine back so you stretch the upper back area. The best time to do this is after a hot shower because the muscles will be most malleable.

Heat – Heat is great for relieving the tension in the afflicted area of the back. A heated towel or heat bag should be appropriate.

Posture – Better posture means less stress on the spine.


Sleep – Put an asterisk beside this one. We don’t only mean sleep, but sleep well on a good mattress. Sleeping on a poor mattress can actually contribute to back pain. If you find yourself not sleeping well on a regular basis and can’t point to any other external factor, try changing your mattress.

Preventative tips for pain between shoulder blades

Dismissing the pain as something incidental is not going to make it go away. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms we have discussed, then know that there could potentially be a more serious problem. But if you are hoping to prevent any back pain, or reduce the chances of severe back problems, then there are two steps that you can take right now to help.

1. Eat better – People underestimate just how much diet is related to overall health. It’s not just beneficial for managing weight, but it has an impact on your physical functions as well. Practicing good eating habits will strengthen your body, making it more difficult to break down.
2. Exercise regularly – It doesn’t even take strenuous exercise to feel the benefits. Just consistent exercise will help strengthen your back muscles and help you better utilize the nutrients from your diet.

Author Bio

Mohan Garikiparithi got his degree in medicine from Osmania University (University of Health Sciences). He practiced clinical medicine for over a decade before he shifted his focus to the field of health communications. During his active practice he served as the head of the Dept. of Microbiology in a diagnostic centre in India. On a three-year communications program in Germany, Mohan developed a keen interest in German Medicine (Homoeopathy), and other alternative systems of medicine. He now advocates treating different medical conditions without the use of traditional drugs. An ardent squash player, Mohan believes in the importance of fitness and wellness.


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