Ever have that achy (sometimes burning but always annoying) shoulder blade pain? Wonder what on earth is causing it? Even more importantly, how do you get rid of this pain that seems to settle between the shoulder blade and your spine? If you have asked yourself this question, do yourself a favor and read on!
It would make sense for the area of pain to indicate the problem muscle that needs work, right? Well….not exactly. In fact this is where many massage therapists fail to properly address the problem of shoulder blade pain. If you are looking for relief from this type of pain, it is necessary to check out the chest muscles in the front of the body. I know that may sound strange, so let me explain….
Over the years we have helped many clients with this issue, and have even experienced this pain ourselves from time to time. Most people would describe this sensation in the shoulder blades as a "tight" muscle, when actually the opposite is true. The muscles of the upper back/shoulder, primarily the mid and lower trapezius and the rhomboids, have actually become locked in a lengthened position. You see, our muscles use a buddy system so that when one muscle contracts to make movement occur, the opposite muscle (or group of muscles) must lengthen to allow for that movement. The lengthening muscle doesn't just let go all at once though. The muscle has to also contract in this lengthened position (eccentric contraction to be exact) to prevent too much movement from occurring. In order to have movement that is controlled, there is an ongoing give and take between the muscles. However, when one set of muscles is required to stay contracted for any length of time, its "buddy" must also keep holding onto its length.
So, what all this muscle mumbo jumbo means is that when we do the things required of us in daily life, such as driving or using the computer, our pectoral (chest) muscles become very tight from constantly holding postures that require our arms to remain outstretched in front of us. Even something passive, like slouching the shoulders forward while sitting and reading a book, is enough to make the pecs tight. Over time, the chest muscles and all of the connective tissue in the area becomes tight and restricted, causing pain and sometimes trigger points in the muscles of the upper back, resulting in that pesky shoulder blade pain.
When seeking massage therapy to help with this pain, be sure to work with a therapist who understands pain patterns and how to help them. Of course, they should do some work on your upper back, to help relieve the symptoms that you are experiencing. But the treatment plan should also include work specifically on the chest and muscles of the arms as well. If the therapist only works on the traps and rhomboids, you may feel some relief but it will not be long lasting. Your symptoms will typically reappear very quickly. Work on the chest muscles, namely pectoralis major and minor, is not always the most comfortable, so it is important to keep communicating with your therapist so that he or she can work within your pain tolerance level. Once these muscles are lengthened, the pressure and tension in the shoulder blades will start to subside and you will begin to feel relief.
1. Sitting at the computer for hours without a break. For most people, the right side is most affected as that is the "mouse hand" but both sides can act up if your keyboard is not set up properly and you are holding those arms out while you surf or type.
2. Holding a small child (or a "not so small" child) in the same arm most of the time.
Most of us have a stronger side that we always use when carrying a heavy load. Typically, this will be the opposite side of your dominant hand. So if you are right handed, you likely make the left side do all the heavy lifting, so that the right hand is free to handle all the finer motor skills, like using keys to open your door, etc. Therefore you would experience the shoulder blade pain in the left shoulder.
3. Carrying a purse or heavy bag, groceries, school books, or any other heavy items always with one arm. Same theory as above….
4. Sleeping on your side, particularly the side that your pain is on. Doing so keeps the shoulder in a rounded, pec-tightening position and when you consider how many hours you may be spending in this position, it is easy to see how this sleeping posture can become a problem. Also remember that this applies to laying on the couch watching TV or reading!
5. Performing any type of work that requires the arms to be held out in front of your body.
6. Over training the chest muscles, while undertraining the muscles in the back and never stretching the pecs. Imagine sitting at the desk all day, chest muscles staying shortened, and then going to the gym and only doing exercises that focus on the pecs contracting and therefore shortening, pulling all the more on the upper back muscles. Yep, this too leads to pain in the shoulder blades.
Since quitting our jobs and receiving daily massages is not in the cards for most of us, what CAN we do about shoulder blade pain? After getting some good massage to get the ball rolling, it is important to learn some self-care techniques to keep you feeling good. First of all, modify any of the behaviors listed above as much as possible.
* Try sleeping on your back (really the best position for us!) if you are a chronic side sleeper.
* Switch your heavy purse to the other shoulder or better yet, lighten your load. You probably will find that don't really need everything you are lugging around with you all the time.
* When using a back pack, put it on both shoulders, rather than slinging it over just one side.
* Take breaks while working at the desk/computer to move around a bit. Roll your shoulders up and back a few times, and do some stretches for the chest. There are many varieties, but see the pictures below if you don't already know had to stretch your chest.
* You can even do some self-massage on your pecs. Cup your fingers together in the shape of the letter "C" and make little circles into the muscle tissue using your finger tips. Cover as much area as possible starting under your collar bone and moving between the sternum (breast bone) and arm pit.
Following these tips should help to improve your shoulder blade pain.
You may also want to check out this page on how to get the most from your massage.