Herniated Disc between the Shoulder Blades: Symptoms, Causes & Solutions

If you're feeling pain between your shoulder blades, it could be from a herniated disc in your upper back.

In this article, we'll help you understand how a herniated disc can cause this kind of discomfort. We'll go over the possible causes, how doctors diagnose it, and the treatment options available. Plus, you'll find practical tips to help prevent these issues in the future.

What is a herniated disc?

The most common type of hernia happens in the belly or groin when a gap in the abdominal muscles allows a section of the intestine to push through. When a hernia occurs in a spinal disc, the outer layer of the disc weakens or cracks, allowing the gel-like center to push outward.

Imagine each disc in your spine as a jelly-filled doughnut. The dough is the outer layer, and the jelly is the center. When some of the jelly oozes out, it’s similar to what happens in a herniated disc.

Why might a herniated disc occur between the shoulder blades?

Herniated discs are most common in the lower back (the lumbar spine), but can also occur in the mid and upper back (the thoracic spine) and the neck (the cervical spine). When they do happen in the upper back, it’s more likely to be in the lower end of the thoracic spine, which is the most flexible part of this region1. However, a herniated disc in the neck area (cervical herniated disc) may also lead to discomfort in the shoulder blade region2.

A herniated disc can occur for various reasons. Aging, injuries, genetics, and lifestyle can all play a role, but it can happen to anyone.

The most common causes are as follows.

Ageing & degenerative disc disease

As you grow older, the intervertebral discs that cushion your movements naturally show signs of aging, in much the same way as your hair will probably turn gray and your skin will become wrinkled. This is known as degenerative disc disease. But, despite the name, it’s a completely normal and usually painless sign of aging.

Over time, the discs can lose some strength and resilience, becoming more susceptible to herniation. Picture this process like a rubber band that has been stretched too many times, becoming brittle and more likely to snap under pressure.

Research indicates that your genetic make-up – what you inherited from your parents – can make you more susceptible to an accelerated onset of degenerative disc disease3.

Lifestyle factors

Overall wellbeing through certain lifestyle choices may elevate the risk of herniated discs:

  • Unhealthy diet – Ignoring the importance of a healthy diet may promote inflammation and can hinder your body's natural healing processes.
  • Irregular exercise and sedentary lifestyle – Gentle aerobic exercise, such as swimming, can improve blood flow and boost your overall health, which in turn can promote disc health.
  • Heightened stress levels – Stress may increase your chances of pain between the shoulder blades by reducing disc cell regeneration and heightening the sensitivity of your nervous system – a process that is known as central sensitization. Stress may also exacerbate the pain responses if you already have a herniated disc4.

While these factors may not cause disc herniation directly, they can increase the risk.

Injuries

Unexpected events like a car accident, a fall, or a wrong step during a vigorous tennis match can put significant stress on the spine. Sometimes, this stress can affect the area around the shoulder blades, leading to a herniated disc.

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What are symptoms of a herniated disc between the shoulder blades?

A herniated disc often causes no symptoms, and many heal on their own without surgery. However, sometimes the disc can press on the spinal nerves, and the gel center can irritate these nerves. If this happens in the upper back, you may feel tingling or pain between your shoulder blades.

The various types of symptoms may vary person to person. For people who do experience discomfort, the typical symptom is sharp pain between the shoulder blades, which is worsened by motion. However, other symptoms include the following:

  • Numbness and tingling between the shoulder blades.
  • Electric or burning pain that is localized to the spine and shoulder blade region.
  • Slow, dull pain that occurs in the upper back and shoulders area.

The symptoms of a herniated disc in the upper back are often complex and can vary extensively from one person to another. That's why it's always helpful to get early diagnosis from a medical professional whenever you can.

How do you treat a herniated disc between the shoulder blades?

In many cases, you don’t need special scans or tests to get effective treatment for your back pain. However, your doctor might suggest using medical imaging techniques like MRI and CT scans. These scans can provide a detailed view of your spine and help identify any injuries, such as a compressed nerve or other issues.

Non-surgical treatment

Herniated discs often improve on their own without the need for surgery or other treatments.

To help your recovery and manage your symptoms, you can try the following methods:

  • Activity and education: Understanding your body and your pain is often the first step toward recovery. Learning how to use physical activity and exercise can reduce your symptoms and make you stronger and more resilient over time.
  • Physical therapy: Any exercise that boosts your cardiovascular health, strengthens your body, and improves your flexibility can help relieve discomfort. The best part is that any movement is good for you, so choose activities you enjoy.
  • Stress management: Studies have shown that stress can negatively affect the healing of spinal discs and increase pain5. Regularly practicing mindfulness and relaxation techniques can help minimize thoracic herniated disc pain.
  • Weight control: It’s not just about the number on the scale. Talk to your doctor or a nutritionist if you have questions about your weight and overall nutrition. Reducing the load on your spine can make a big difference.
  • Medications: Simple pain relief can help manage the symptoms of a herniated disc. Anti-inflammatory drugs, like ibuprofen, can reduce swelling and inflammation around the nerve roots, while pain relievers, like paracetamol, help manage pain levels. Muscle relaxants may also be used to ease muscle spasms.

It is also helpful to continue with these practices even after the shoulder blade pain you are experiencing subsides. This is because these same activities can prevent disc herniation from occurring again in the future.

Surgical treatment

In the most severe cases, some people may need surgical treatments to relieve their symptoms. The most common procedures include:

  • Microdiscectomy: If a fragment of the disc is pressing on a nerve, a microdiscectomy might be recommended. The surgeon uses a microscope and precision tools to remove the fragment. Most patients can go home the same day or the following day.
  • Anterior Cervical Discectomy and Fusion (ACDF): This surgery treats herniated discs in the neck (cervical spine). The surgeon makes a small incision in the front of the neck to reach the affected disc. The disc is removed, and a fusion procedure may be done to keep the spine stable.

When to seek medical attention

If you are facing the challenges of back or shoulder pain related to a herniated disc between the shoulder blades, it is important to consult a healthcare provider. Especially if your symptoms are new, returning, or not improving with time or lifestyle changes.

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