what does pain between the shoulder blades mean
Pain between the shoulder blades is often caused by poor posture or spinal conditions such as spinal arthritis, spinal stenosis, or herniated disks

Pain between the shoulder blades, also called interscapular pain, is very common and can limit movements or interfere with daily activities. Upper back pain can range from minor stiffness to severe spasms and causes are often linked to the anatomical structures in and around the interscapular region.

Upper back pain may start gradually and worsen over time, or it can strike suddenly. Sharp, stabbing, dull, achy, and cramping pain are all signs and symptoms of upper back pain. Muscle spasms and headaches are common side effects.

What is the anatomy of shoulder blades?

Pathology of the following anatomical structures can cause pain in and around the interscapular region:

  • Intervertebral disks of the cervical and thoracic spine
  • Shoulder girdle or scapula
  • Ribs
  • Muscles (rhomboids, lower trapezius, middle trapezius, upper trapezius, and paraspinal muscles, etc.)
  • Peripheral and spinal nerves
  • Thoracic aorta (aorta in the chest)
  • Esophagus
  • Lungs
  • Heart

What causes pain between the shoulder blades?

  • Muscle strain is one of the most common causes of pain between the shoulder blades, often affecting both the neck and shoulders. Muscular strain occurs when excessive stress is placed on the muscle, causing inflammation and tearing of the muscle fibers. Repetitive pulling actions can cause muscle strain on the rhomboids or trapezius muscles.
  • Poor posture is also a common cause of upper back pain. Chronic slouched or slumped posture, as well as a poor quality mattress, can cause strain on the muscles and lead to pain between the shoulder blades.
  • Spinal conditions such as spinal arthritis, spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal), and ruptured or herniated disks can also cause upper back discomfort. Upper back pain is a symptom of osteoporosis as well.

In rare cases, medical conditions such as heart attacks or lung damage can cause referred pain in the upper back. If you notice signs of a possible heart attack, such as upper back discomfort with chest pain, shortness of breath, sweating, jaw pain, or nausea, iseek medical attention immediately.

How do you differentiate between joint pain and muscle pain?

Joint pain and muscle pain are the two most common causes of upper back pain:

  • Joint dysfunction: People who are in pain due to joint dysfunction either have had an injury or are suffering natural deterioration as they age. The cartilage or capsule of a joint, for example, could tear. It's probable that if the vertebrae are weakening, a degenerative disk disease is present as well.
  • Muscle pain: However, muscle pain is nearly always caused by overuse injuries or lack of strength. Strain and tightness are especially common in the major upper back muscles that join the shoulder blade and rear of the rib cage. This type of pain is exacerbated by poor posture.

Risk factors for upper back pain include:

  • Smoking
  • Being overweight
  • Excessive lifting or hauling
  • Playing contact sports
  • Sitting for lengthy periods in front of a computer (bad posture)
  • Poor muscle tone

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How to prevent pain between the shoulder blades

Preventing upper back pain is easier than resolving it, as is the case with most back problems. Keep your spine in good shape with these tips:

  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Maintain proper posture as much as possible
  • Exercise regularly
  • Eat a balanced, healthy diet
  • Don't smoke
  • Use an ergonomic work desk
  • If you work in an office and spend long periods staring at a computer, make sure to take frequent breaks to stretch and walk around

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Medically Reviewed on 11/10/2021
References
Image Source: iStock Images

ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22661566

ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22528847

ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3273886/

orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=a00065