When Should I Worry About Shoulder Blade Pain?


Shoulder blade pain is quite common, but there are times when it means a visit to a doctor is in order.

Along your upper back are two parallel bones known as the scapulas. Flanking each side of your spine, these large triangular bones allow you to move your shoulders back and forth as well as up and down. Yet, as with any other part of your body, your shoulder blade or scapula can become painful due to overuse or injury.

In most cases, shoulder blade pain goes away within a few days and is nothing to worry about. However, there may be times when a painful shoulder blade requires a more comprehensive medical review.

What causes shoulder blade pain?

Shoulder blade pain differs from pain centered in the shoulder joint or between the shoulder blades. Instead, shoulder blade pain involves the scapula itself and the muscles and other connective tissues supporting it.

The pain can be sharp or dull. Other symptoms include weakness in the affected arm, decreased range of motion, and a snapping sound when moving the shoulder. The shoulder blade may also visibly protrude.

Shoulder blade pain may have several causes, but the most common is a muscle strain or tear from lifting a heavy object or overuse, such as a rotator cuff tear.

Other possible causes range from poor posture to a herniated disc in the cervical (neck) spine. Arthritis, spinal stenosis, and osteoporosis can also cause the shoulder blade to become painful. Shoulder blade pain may also signal more serious medical conditions, such as a heart attack or even lung cancer, so don’t hesitate to get checked out if you feel the pain is serious.

Four signs you should see a doctor for shoulder blade pain

Shoulder blade pain typically resolves with rest and several home remedies, such as intermittent icing and over-the-counter pain reducers. Exercises and stretches to strengthen and lengthen the back muscles, such as pushups and one-arm extensions, are also recommended. 

If those fail to bring quick relief, you may need further evaluation from an orthopedist. Listed are the four signs a medical exam may be required:

  1. When the pain lasts longer than a few days. Persistent, chronic pain in the shoulder blade indicates a serious injury or chronic condition. 
  2. When the pain is severe. Severe, debilitating pain signals something more is going on than a mere muscle ache. Swelling and tenderness to the touch are other signs of a serious condition.
  3. When the shoulder blade looks abnormal. A misshapen shoulder blade could result from a dislocated shoulder or an injury from a bad fall. 
  4. When the pain is accompanied by other symptoms. Shoulder pain accompanied by chest pain, shortness of breath, and rapid heartbeat demands immediate medical attention. Such symptoms could mean a heart attack or a tear in the aortic blood vessel, the largest vessel in the heart. A pulmonary embolism, or blood clot in the lungs, can also cause shoulder blade pain. If you suspect the shoulder blade pain is due to a cardiovascular event, go to the nearest ER for treatment. 

Ongoing shoulder blade pain not related to the heart or lungs should be checked by a doctor, who will perform a thorough physical examination and possibly order imaging tests, such as an X-ray or MRI. Surgery is rarely recommended for shoulder blade pain, but you may be referred to a physical therapist for specific exercises to manage your shoulder blade pain.

Meet the shoulder pain specialists

As a leading sports medicine center, New York Bone & Joint Specialists has successfully treated numerous patients with shoulder pain. With the latest diagnostic tools, we’ll pinpoint the problem and develop a treatment plan just for you. Contact us today for a consultation.

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