Shoulder Blade Pain: Muscle Strain, Heart Attacks, Gallstones
Try our free symptom checker
Get a thorough self-assessment before your visit to the doctor.
If you are experiencing shoulder blade pain, then you are not alone. This common condition can be caused by shoulder muscle overuse, rotator cuff tendonitis, or a pinched nerve located in the neck. Read below for more information on causes and how to relieve pain in the shoulder blade.
Shoulder blade pain symptoms
You use your shoulders all day — to wash your hair, get dressed, open your car door, reach for the sugar for your coffee, and probably even shrug them once or twice. If you experience a twinge of shoulder blade pain, all of those tasks may become a burden to complete. If you've had shoulder pain before, the following symptoms will probably sound familiar.
Common characteristics of shoulder blade pain
Shoulder blade can likely present with the following symptoms.
- Dull and aching pain of the shoulder blade
- Difficulty using affected arm(s)
- Feeling of a pulled muscle
- Pain in nearby muscle groups: Shoulder or back pain, for example.
- Instability of the shoulder
What causes shoulder blade pain?
There are several causes to consider when dealing with shoulder blade pain symptoms. The following details may help you better understand your symptoms and if and when you need to see a physician.
Shoulder blade pain may be due to musculoskeletal causes.
- Muscle strain: The most common cause of shoulder blade pain are muscle strains from intense workouts, heavy lifting, or even sleeping in an uncomfortable position.
- Snapping scapula syndrome: If your discomfort is accompanied by cracking and popping noises, this muscular condition could be the cause.
Heart issues can present as shoulder pain.
- Heart attack: In some cases, especially with women, shoulder blade pain can be a sign of a heart attack.
- Other serious heart problems: Shoulder discomfort is also related to pericarditis and aortic dissection, both requiring immediate medical attention.
Issues in the abdomen can result in referred pain to the shoulder, such as the following.
- Gallstones: The presence of gallstones is a common cause of discomfort that doesn't improve with rest and time. More common in the right shoulder blade, discomfort is due to referred pain by nerves that also affect the area of the abdomen where the gallbladder lies.
- Pancreatitis: This digestive disorder causes left shoulder pain and can cause extreme pain that requires medical attention.
This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.
The rotator cuff is an arrangement of muscles and tendons that holds the head of the upper arm bone within the shoulder socket. Rotator cuff tendinitis is the resulting condition when these muscles and tendons become inflamed or damaged.
The dominant symptom is a na..
Non-specific shoulder pain
Non-specific shoulder pain, also called NSSP, means that the cause of pain in the shoulder is not immediately obvious.
There are many structures in and around the shoulder. The pain may be from a condition or injury in the joint itself, or in any of the bones, muscles, tendons, and ligaments surrounding it. Anything from a broken arm to arthritis can cause shoulder pain.
Symptoms include pain that worsens with movement of the arm and shoulder, especially following overuse, or injury. Swelling, redness, joint deformity, inability to move the arm, or severe pain should be seen right away by a medical provider.
Shoulder pain with shortness of breath and/or pain or tightness in the chest can be signs of a heart attack. Take the patient to the emergency room or call 9-1-1.
Diagnosis is made through physical examination and through x-ray or CT scan.
Treatment usually begins with rest and over-the-counter, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory pain relievers. Further care will be determined by medical providers once the exact cause of the pain has been determined.
Top Symptoms: shoulder pain
Symptoms that always occur with non-specific shoulder pain: shoulder pain
Pinched nerve in the neck
A pinched nerve in the neck is also called cervical radiculopathy. It means that a nerve in the neck, at a point where it branches off from the spinal cord, is being compressed by the surrounding bones, muscles, or other tissues.
It can be caused by a traumatic injury, such as from sports or an automobile accident, especially if the injury results in a herniated disk. It may also arise from the normal wear and tear of aging.
Symptoms include sharp, burning pain with numbness and tingling from the neck to the shoulder, as well as weakness and numbness into the arm and hand.
Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and simple neurological tests to check the reflexes. Imaging such as x-ray, CT scan, or MRI may be done, as well as electromyography to measure nerve impulses in the muscles.
A pinched nerve in the neck often improves with simply a few days or weeks of rest. Physical therapy, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and steroid injections into the spine can all be very helpful.
Top Symptoms: pain in one shoulder, spontaneous shoulder pain, pain that radiates down arm, pain in the back of the neck, severe shoulder pain
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Frozen shoulder (adhesive capsulitis of the shoulder)
Frozen shoulder is also called adhesive capsulitis of the shoulder. The "shoulder capsule" is the strong web of connective tissue which holds the ball joint of the upper arm inside the socket of the shoulder blade. If this connective tissue is damaged, scar tissue – or adhesions – may form and cause the shoulder capsule to become tight, painful, and inflexible.
The condition can happen if an injury to the shoulder forces it to stay immobilized while healing. Additional risk factors may be diabetes, thyroid abnormalities, and heart disease.
Symptoms include gradual worsening of the ability to move the shoulder, due to increasing pain and stiffness in the outer shoulder and upper arm.
Diagnosis is made through physical examination, with simple tests to measure how far the shoulder can move, as well as imaging such as x-ray or MRI.
Treatment involves physical therapy to help restore range of motion; over-the-counter, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to ease pain; and sometimes cortisone injections to the shoulder joint. Surgery may be needed in some cases.
Top Symptoms: spontaneous shoulder pain, stiff shoulder, dull, achy shoulder pain, shoulder pain that gets worse at night, difficulty moving the shoulder
Symptoms that always occur with frozen shoulder (adhesive capsulitis of the shoulder): stiff shoulder
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Shoulder strain means that the muscles and/or the tendons in the shoulder have been overstretched to the point of damage and sometimes partial tearing. (A "sprain" means that ligaments have been damaged.)
Because of its wide range of motion, the shoulder is a relatively unstable joint that is vulnerable to injury. A sudden overloading, especially after long periods of overuse, can finally cause some degree of tearing to the muscle fibers and/or the tendons.
Shoulder strains are most often sports injuries, or are caused by strenuous physical labor.
Symptoms include sudden sharp pain followed by swelling, bruising, and ongoing tenderness.
Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and sometimes ultrasound.
Treatment involves a short period of rest, followed by gradually increasing exercise to regain strength and prevent stiffness and weakness of the muscles and tendons. Physical therapy will be tailored to the individual and some skills, such as for sports, may need to be relearned. Improving posture while sitting, and adjusting techniques for work and sports, can help prevent recurrence of the strain.
Top Symptoms: pain in one shoulder, pain in the front of the shoulder, shoulder pain from overuse, shoulder pain from an injury, sports injury
Symptoms that always occur with shoulder strain: pain in one shoulder
Symptoms that never occur with shoulder strain: arm weakness, arm numbness
Urgency: Phone call or in-person visit
Shoulder arthritis is inflammation of the shoulder joint, where the upper arm bone (humerus) meets the shoulder blade (scapula) and collarbone (clavicle). This inflammation can be caused by osteoarthritis or "wear-and-tear," injury to the shoulder joints, rotator cuff injuries, or r..
Myofascial pain syndrome
Myofascial pain syndrome is also called chronic myofascial pain (CMP.) Pressure on certain points of the muscles causes referred pain, meaning the pain is felt elsewhere in the body.
The cause is believed to be muscle injury through overuse, either from sports or from a job requiring repetitive motion. Tension, stress, and poor posture can also cause habitual tightening of the muscles, a form of overuse.
This overuse causes scar tissue, or adhesions, to form in the muscles. These points are known as trigger points, since they trigger pain at any stimulus.
Symptoms include deep, aching muscular pain that does not go away with rest or massage, but may actually worsen. There is often difficulty sleeping due to pain.
Myofascial pain syndrome should be seen by a medical provider, since it can develop into a similar but more severe condition called fibromyalgia.
Diagnosis is made through physical examination and applying mild pressure to locate the trigger points.
Treatment involves physical therapy, pain medications, and trigger point injections. In some cases, acupuncture and antidepressants are helpful.
Top Symptoms: dizziness, spontaneous shoulder pain, pain in the back of the neck, tender muscle knot, general numbness
Symptoms that always occur with myofascial pain syndrome: tender muscle knot
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Repetitive strain injury of the shoulder ("swimmer's shoulder")
Repetitive strain injury of the shoulder is caused by consistent repetitive use.
Top Symptoms: shoulder pain from overuse, shoulder weakness, shoulder numbness
Symptoms that always occur with repetitive strain injury of the shoulder ("swimmer's shoulder"): shoulder pain from overuse
Symptoms that never occur with repetitive strain injury of the shoulder ("swimmer's shoulder"): severe shoulder pain, shoulder injury
Fibromyalgia is a set of chronic symptoms that include ongoing fatigue, diffuse tenderness to touch, musculoskeletal pain, and usually some degree of depression.
The cause is not known. When fibromyalgia appears, it is usually after a stressful physical or emotional event such as an automobile accident or a divorce. It may include a genetic component where the person experiences normal sensation as pain.
Almost 90% of fibromyalgia sufferers are women. Anyone with rheumatic disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, may be more prone to fibromyalgia.
Poor sleep is often a symptom, along with foggy thinking, headaches, painful menstrual periods, and increased sensitivity to heat, cold, bright lights, and loud noises.
There is no standard test for fibromyalgia. The diagnosis is usually made when the above symptoms go on for three months or more with no apparent cause.
Fibromyalgia does not go away on its own but does not get worse, either.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, arthralgias or myalgias, anxiety, depressed mood, headache
Symptoms that always occur with fibromyalgia: arthralgias or myalgias
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Shoulder blade pain treatments and relief
Most cases of shoulder blade pain are treatable. A little bit of time and rest should do the trick. But in some cases, shoulder blade pain is a sign of a heart attack.
When shoulder blade pain is an emergency
If the pain is sudden and you can't think of a logical explanation for it, seek immediate medical attention if you're also experiencing:
- Chest tightness
- Excessive sweating
- Difficulty breathing
- Pain in the neck or jaw
- Difficulty speaking
When to see a doctor for shoulder blade pain
If your shoulder blade pain is due to injury or something not life-threatening, schedule an appointment with your doctor if you don't notice an improvement over the course of several days.
At-home shoulder blade pain treatments
You can also try the following shoulder blade pain treatments and tips to have yourself feeling better quicker.
- Exercise and stretching: Strengthening your back could help alleviate pain. Try pushups, sit-ups, and pullups. Remember to start slow if you don't exercise regularly. Light stretches can also help loosen tense muscles.
- Therapy: Both massage and physical therapy can help with shoulder blade pain that comes and goes, especially if due to an injury or compressed nerve.
- Medication: Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication can temporarily relieve shoulder blade pain. Steroids might also be prescribed.
- Surgery: Shoulder blade surgery is rare but it's an option for those suffering with extreme pain.
Ninety percent of people experiencing pain in their shoulder blade will positively respond to rest and exercise.
FAQs about shoulder blade pain
What does a torn ligament in your shoulder feel like?
A torn ligament in the shoulder will be painful, and can and often does follow a period of exertion and strain of a muscle. Some individuals say that they hear an audible pop and then a sudden onset of pain in the setting of a complete tear. Others, in the case of a partial tear, report pain and swelling after a muscle "gives out" or after a quick and vigorous motion of the shoulder.
Can stress cause pain between the shoulder blades?
Stress has been reported to cause pain between the shoulder blades. The trapezius muscle is between the shoulder blades and tends to tense and strain when someone is under chronic stress. While there is little evidence about pain between the shoulder blades as a psychosomatic manifestation of stress, it is possible.
Why do I have chronic shoulder blade pain?
It is difficult to evaluate the cause of chronic shoulder pain without physically examining the shoulder. There a few questions that may help narrow the diagnosis. Have you had trauma to the shoulder? Rotator cuff injuries are often more subtle on the first appearance and may not be evident on an X-ray. If there is no evidence of an injury, it may be either referred pain or pain from a damaged nerve. The most common causes of chronic shoulder pain are strains and sprains from overuse or overexertion of a shoulder.
Why do I feel a burning sensation on my shoulder blades?
A pinched nerve, shingles (varicella zoster), or stretching particularly tight muscles can cause a burning sensation on the shoulder blades. A pinched nerve may radiate or move from the neck or mid-back outward and shoot down the shoulder to the wrist. A shingles infection is usually one-sided, and the pain is quickly accompanied by a red bumpy rash that is extremely painful and tender to the touch.
Why does it hurt in my upper back when I breathe?
Pain in your upper back with deep breathing can be due to tense muscles. However, there are much more worrisome symptoms that involve chest and back pain upon deep inspiration. Pleuritic chest pain (or chest pain on deep inspiration) can be a sign of a blood clot in the lungs, a punctured lung, inflammation of the lining of the lungs, or a rib fracture.
Questions your doctor may ask about shoulder blade pain
- How would you explain the cause of your shoulder pain?
- Can you fully move your shoulders around?
- Where exactly is your shoulder pain?
- Do you feel a painful, tight knot or band in your muscle anywhere on the body?
Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.
Rochel specializes in writing for health, dental and orthodontist industry. She has written several eBooks that have ranked number one in their category. Rochel received her BA from College of Lake County.
- Sciascia AD, Kibler WB. Scapular (Shoulder Blade) Disorders. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: OrthoInfo. Updated March 2017. OrthoInfo Link.
- Merolla G, Cerciello S, Porcellini G, et al. Snapping Scapula Syndrome: Current Concepts Review in Conservative and Surgical Treatment. Muscles, Ligaments and Tendons Journal. 2013;3(2):80-90. NCBI Link.
- Symptoms of Heart Attack & Stroke in Women. Jean Hailes. Updated November 28, 2017. Jean Hailes Link.
- Aneurysms and Dissections. Texas Heart Institute. Texas Heart Institute Link.
- Njeze GE. Gallstones. Nigerian Journal of Surgery: Official Publication of the Nigerian Surgical Research Society. 2013;19(2):49-55. NCBI Link.
- Blahd Jr WH, Husney A, Romito K, Messenger D, eds. Referred Shoulder Pain. University of Michigan: Michigan Medicine. Updated September 20, 2018. UofM Health Link.
- Athwal GS, Widmer B. Shoulder Pain and Common Shoulder Problems. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: OrthoInfo. Updated March 2018. OrthoInfo Link.