The causes of aches and pains between the shoulder blades - and how to fix it without painkillers!
What causes pain between the shoulder blades?
Like back pain (opens in new tab), shoulder pain can have many causes. The most common is a muscular injury – overdoing the gardening for example - or tension. But it can also be the sign of something more serious such as a heart attack (opens in new tab), arthritis or osteoporosis (opens in new tab) so it’s important to seek medical advice if you’re worried about your symptoms.
Once you’ve ruled out the possibility of under-lying health issues, there are ways to help manage pain without pills.
How do you relieve pain between your shoulders?
‘Keeping your joints flexible will stimulate good circulation and oxygenation, reducing pain and tension,’ says Helene Cassan, Spa & Wellness Consultant at Heritage Resorts, a leading wellness resort in Mauritius and organiser of the annual Mauritius Wellness Festival (opens in new tab).
This is especially true first thing in the morning too. ‘Don’t just jump out of bed,’ says physiotherapist Sammy Margo. ‘You stiffen up after a night resting in one position.’ Instead loosen up by lying on your back and gently pulling each leg to your chest 10 times. Then roll onto your side, bend your knees, push your hands to raise yourself up and lower your legs over the side of the bed.
Shoulder and neck stretch:
- Slowly tilt your head to the right as close to your shoulder as possible (you can use your hand to accentuate the stretch which must remain slow and soft).
- Do the same on the other side.
- Tilt your head forward and then slowly back, keeping your shoulders relaxed.
- Turn your head to the right and then to the left, going as far as possible.
- Rotate your head three times clockwise, then three times anticlockwise.
- Rotate your shoulders forwards and then backwards.
Minding your mindset
The way we think about pain can have an effect on how much pain we feel. ‘Pain is in your brain,’ says osteopath Nick Potter, author of The Meaning of Pain (£12.99, Short Books). ‘That doesn’t mean you’re making it up. It just means that once you’ve had pain it can become burnt into your neural pathways - mis-sending pain signals long after the initial cause of the pain (injury or surgery, for example) has gone.’
Those signals, plus the fear of potential pain if you move too much, can reduce activity, and therefore blood flow, muscle strength and flexibility, all of which can make pain worse.
The first thing you need to do is see your doctor to rule out underlying causes for your pain, then discuss how best to manage it with some of the self-help techniques included here.
Conquer stress and sleep
Numerous studies show that stress can make pain more acute. Tension in muscles restricts blood flow, shallower breathing makes us more tense and the stress response leads to inflammation, making nerves more sensitive.
Try relaxation techniques, like yoga and meditation, which combine muscle relaxation with deep breathing exercises.
And make sure you get enough sleep. Recent studies suggest a link between not getting enough shuteye and feeling more pain. Research at Warwick University identified a link between chronic pain and lack of sleep and found that cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) could help. Ask your GP for a referral.
Keep backpain at bay by drinking a couple of litres of water a day to keep spinal discs in your back healthy. These natural shock absorbers cushion the vertebrae and are made up of about 80% water.
Back pain is the largest single cause of disability according to NHS England. It affects 39% of the UK’s population, who take an estimated 30 million working days off sick a year because of it. And most is caused simply by sitting too much, says Neil Velleman, a physiotherapist specializing in back pain.
Take breaks from sitting. Get up and walk about every 20 minutes. Stand up and hug your body – right hand on left shoulder and left on right. Breathe in and out to stretch your back. Shrug shoulders and try torso twists to ease the spine.
Five times a week, aim for at least 30 minutes heart-rate raising exercise, such as brisk walking or swimming.
Control your weight
Another benefit of exercise is weight control, which can also help reduce pain, says Nick. He estimates a 17% reduction in pain for every 4kg lost. ‘Being overweight stresses your joints and increases inflammation.’
Alternative therapies for back pain
Aromatherapy and acupuncture can both help lessen pain. Try these top five natural painkillers:
Clove oil: traditionally used for toothache, it’s believed to be anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and anti-fungal.
Capsaicin: found in chilli peppers, it helps to relieve pain when used in topical creams.
Lavender: a great muscle relaxant, which is useful to soothe tension headaches caused by stress and anxiety.
Rosemary: researchers found that it may act on receptors in the brain involved in feeling pain.
Peppermint: traditionally used for arthritis, the oil is thought to help with joint and bone pain. Recent research suggests it too could help ease tension headaches
5 of the best pain relievers
If you feel like you still need extra help, then these products might help...
Yu-yu water bottle
£34, Amazon For chronic pain: Yu-yu – the world’s longest hot-water bottle uses heat therapy to encourage blood flow and de-activate pain receptors in our skin. It’s 81cm long and comes with a strap to fix it to your body.
Pukka Herbs Turmeric Active Tea
£10, Amazon For joint pain: Turmeric can suppress inflammation.
Deep Freeze Pain Relief Glide-on Gel
£7.92, Amazon For short-term sprains and strains: This product uses cold therapy to numb pain fast (or you can try a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a tea towel!).
Deep Heat patch
£18.85, Amazon For neck and shoulders: Provides continuous low-level heat to increase blood flow.
Traumeel cream and gel
(available in pharmacies) For tendon pain: It combines 14 natural ingredients to reduce inflammation and ease pain, including calendula, arnica, Echinacea and chamomile.
Tanya Pearey has been a writer and editor in the health, fitness and lifestyle field for the past 25 years. She writes regularly for women’s lifestyle titles including woman&home. She has also written for newspapers including The Daily Mail and Daily Express, and women’s magazines in Australia.
Tanya is an avid runner and is lover of Parkruns and half marathons. She completed the London Marathon in under four hours – but that was 20 years ago! She’s a keen tennis player and walker, having climbed Kilimanjaro and the UK’s three highest peaks - Snowdon, Ben Nevis and Scafell Pike.
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