Shoulder Blade Pain: When to Get Help

Shoulder Blade Pain

When you have shoulder blade pain, you may be a little confused. Shoulder blade pain isn’t like other pain- the causes aren’t always clear cut.

The symptom of shoulder blade pain could be something as simple as sleeping in a wrong position, or as serious as something such as lung cancer.

What are some things that you need to know if you are experiencing chronic shoulder blade pain?

Symptoms of Shoulder Blade Pain

Before talking about the symptoms of shoulder blade pain, it is a good idea to describe the exact location that being referred to when talking about the shoulder blades.

The shoulder blades- known in the medical world as the scapulae- are those triangular shaped bones in your upper back that stick out and become visible when you extend your elbows toward your back.

The shoulder blades do have many functions, one of which is to support the pivotal movements of your shoulder.

Pain in this region can be a result of many causes- from inflammation of the scapula, or referred pain from other areas of your body.

Determining which shoulder blade is affected- the right or the left- is an important factor because there are some conditions that are more likely to affect one over the other.

Shoulder Blade Pain Causes

As mentioned, pain in your shoulder blades could be due to inflammation- or even trauma- to the shoulder itself, or it could be due to referred pain from other regions in your body such as your abdomen or chest.

Due to this, the pain can be something as simple as muscle strain or as serious as a condition of your heart or lungs- or even cancer.

Some of the conditions are more likely to affect one side as opposed to the other. For example, if you have gallbladder disease, you are more likely to have pain in your right shoulder blade and if you have a heart condition, you’re more likely to experience pain in your left shoulder blade.

chronic shoulder blade pain

Possible causes for shoulder blade pain are as follows:

Muscle Strain

Short term, overuse of your upper torso and arms could be experienced in your scapula. This is the most common cause of shoulder blade pain. Even simply sleeping in the wrong position could cause shoulder blade pain.

Basically, muscle strains feel like a pulled muscle and this is most likely the case if you’ve recently started a new exercise program, done some lifting that you’re not used to, or even slept in a different or new bed. Another possible cause of pain in the shoulder blade is a torn rotator cuff.

Disc Disease

If you have collapsed or displaced discs in your cervical spine, it could cause compression of the nerves, which can result in referred pain in your shoulder blades.

Heart Conditions

Heart problems, especially in women, could cause referred pain from the heart to the shoulders, back, and shoulder blades- specifically on the left side. Conditions such as pericarditis, aortic dissection, and heart attacks could also be experienced as pain in your left shoulder blade.


The scapulae are some of the most difficult bones to fracture, and it is very unlikely that you’ll fracture them without knowing how it happened. Falls or accidents are the most common causes of shoulder blade fractures.


Shingles, which is an infection that is caused by the very chickenpox virus, could cause pain in the shoulder blades. Typically, this is followed in a few days by a rash.

Bone Metastases

Tumors from cancers such as lung cancer, breast cancer, colon cancer, and esophageal cancer (and even some others) can spread to the scapulae and cause pain in the shoulder blades.

Lung Tumors/Conditions

Pancoast tumors- a form of lung cancer that grows on the top of the lungs can cause shoulder blade pain, and pain in the shoulders and arms, instead of the typical symptoms of lung cancer.

Other possible causes are pulmonary emboli- which are blood clots in the legs that break off and go to the lungs or a pneumothorax (which is a collapsed lung).


Arthritis whether in the shoulder, shoulder blade, or in the neck could be a cause of referred scapular pain.


A thinning of the bones, or osteoporosis, could occur in the shoulder blades, shoulders, or neck, causing pain in the shoulder blades.

Abdominal Conditions

A disease of the organs in your digestive system are not uncommon reasons for referred pain in the right shoulder blade. Some of these conditions could include peptic ulcer disease, liver disease, and gallstones.

The pancreas is also part of the digestive system, but pancreatitis is most likely to cause left shoulder blade pain.

Questions Your Physician May Ask

When your physician is diagnosing your shoulder blade pain and its causes, he/she may ask the following questions:

  • Which shoulder blade hurts?
  • How long has the pain been present?
  • Did it come on suddenly or gradually?
  • Has your exercise routine recently changed?
  • Do you participate in activities that cause pain in your shoulder blades/shoulders?
  • Is the pain on the side that you sleep on?
  • Describe your pain- sharp or dull, superficial or deep, achy or burning, steady or stabbing?
  • Is there something that makes the pain worse? What about better?
  • Are you having other symptoms?
  • Do you smoke or have you ever smoked?

Treatment of Shoulder Blade Pain

The treatment of your shoulder blade pain will depend upon what is causing the pain. If it is related to overworking it, the treatment will most likely be resting it.

If the pain is due to cancer, your options will include chemotherapy, radiation, and possibly some surgical procedures to alleviate your pain.

When to Seek Treatment

If your shoulder blade pain lasts beyond a few days, it is very important that you make an appointment to see your physician. If you have severe pain, or it is accompanied by chest pain or shortness of breath, you should call 911 or your physician immediately.



1 thought on “Shoulder Blade Pain: When to Get Help”

  1. Have had bouts of really bad scapular pain for months & also breathlessness. Couldnt pinpoint where the pain was because I too thought scapular was just the bone that stuck out!! I am 57 years old & apparently have stage 3 liver disease although my gp has never discussed the condition with me. I think it was discovered in 2011 when I was having scans for hairy cell lukaemia. Rather than bother my gp with my actual shoulder (mainly right) pain, would I be able to go to a walk in clinic for advice? Not because I think they are any less busy than my surgery, but sometimes I feel as though my gp thinks am making it up! Would appreciate any advice, please! Thank you.i

Comments are closed.