4 Common Causes of Shoulder Pain Between Shoulder Blades

September 10, 2019

A woman feels shoulder pain
Bana Jobe

Pardon the pun, but your shoulders tend to "shoulder" a lot of responsibilities. They help you lift, lower, turn, twist and move your upper torso in all directions — and it's in large part thanks to the muscles between the shoulders and the shoulder blades.

Because these muscles have such a big job to do, it's not uncommon for them to get injured, which causes mild or more serious discomfort known as interscapular pain, or pain between the shoulders. But then again, it's not always injury that causes it.

Musculoskeletal Causes of Shoulder Pain Between Shoulder Blades

If you've got shoulder blade pain, the first thing you might do is retrace your days to determine what went wrong. Did you lift something too heavy? Sleep in a strange position or recently get a new bed? Bend your back in a way you shouldn't have or have exceptionally poor posture lately?

All of these things can cause shoulder pain — and commonly do. These examples are known as musculoskeletal causes of this pain, and in addition to lifting, sleeping, bending and sitting in awkward ways, interscapular pain can also link back to these causes and examples:

  1. Overextension: Reaching too far for something or straining your shoulders.
  2. Overuse: Working too hard in the garden or repeating the same motion over and over again.
  3. Sports activities: Rotator cuff injuries from playing golf.
  4. Other injuries: Falling or injuries that lead to localized pain.

Underlying Causes of Back Pain Between Shoulder Blades

While musculoskeletal issues can be likely culprits for discomfort between the shoulder blades, sometimes the causes aren't related to a local injury at all. In fact, sometimes the pain serves as a warning of a larger, more serious underlying issue elsewhere in the body, such as:

  • Bone issues like arthritis or osteoporosis.
  • Chest problems like lung disease, that originate in the lungs but cause pain up the back.
  • Abdominal problems like liver disease or peptic ulcers, which can cause the pain to be felt in the upper middle back.
  • Heart problems like a heart attack, which can cause shoulder blade pain, especially if it's felt on the left side and experienced in women.

When to Call the Doctor

Often, the causes of pain between shoulder blades can tie back to a musculoskeletal issue, like a strain, and can be treated with at-home care and rest. But if the pain comes on unexpectedly and you can't trace it back to an injury, muscle strain or sleeping poorly, you should probably call the doctor, just in case.

Call the doctor right away if:

  • You're a woman who feels pain on the left shoulder blade.
  • Your heart is racing, you have pain in the chest, you feel dizzy or have trouble breathing or talking.
  • Your legs are hurting, swollen or flushed.
  • Blood appears when you cough.

Pain Alleviation Tips

If none of the above warning signs apply and you suspect a mild case of muscle strain, try at-home care, which includes getting plenty of rest and icing the sore area with an ice pack. It can also be helpful to take ibuprofen to help with the pain and swelling. Depending on how you feel, a few active treatments may also help relieve moderate cases of back pain between shoulder blades, such as getting a massage or stretching.

3 Exercises You Can Do Right Now (Even at Work)

As long as the pain isn't too severe, these four shoulder conditioning exercises from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons may help, especially if you need a quick break to loosen up your muscles during the workday:

  1. Basic Shoulder Stretch: Hold your right arm out and across your chest. Curl your left arm over the right elbow and hold for 30 seconds. Do four stretches on each side.
  2. Back Lateral: Hold a stick, band or sweater behind you with one hand on either end. Slowly shift the object to the right and hold for 30 seconds. Do four stretches on each side.
  3. Front Lateral:Replicate the second exercise, except with the object in front of you this time. Again, do four stretches on each side.

If the pain gets worse or doesn't improve, it's likely time to get it checked out by a professional, who may be able to connect you with other treatments or therapies that can help. Most importantly, don't tough out the pain — give yourself rest when you need it: After all, the shoulders certainly have to shoulder a lot of your daily bodily movements. If they hurt, take it easy so that they can recuperate and heal.

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