Your scapulae are the triangle shaped bones that sit either side of your upper back and are often referred to as your shoulder blades. The muscles surrounding are responsible for moving you shoulder and arm and also assist in providing shoulder stability. If they become spamsed (either acutely or chronically) they can be very painful and impact how you engage in every day activities. There are a few major differences between acute and chronic muscle spasms that will dictate which treatments are most effective and appropriate. Acute muscle spasming is when the muscle contracts suddenly for a short period of time. This may occur in the form of a cramp where the scapula muscles contract rapidly for a few seconds to a few minutes before relaxing. This process is involuntary and can be mildly, moderately or severely painful.
Chronic scapular muscle spasming, however, is when the muscle slowly become tighter with time and does not relax. This may occur over a few days, weeks or months and can cause people to be in pain frequently. The causes of both acute and chronic scapula muscle spasm also differ.
Causes for Chronic Scapula Muscle Spasm
- Poor posture: Throughout the day it may be difficult to maintain good posture, especially during sitting. Prolonged poor posture (ie slouching or rolling your shoulder forward) can put excess strain on the scapula muscles, causing them to become fatigued and spamsed.
- Over use: Frequent and repetitive use of the scapula muscles can also cause them to spasm. If you are regularly lifting, carrying or moving heavy items for most of your week, you may be over using the muscles around your scapula, and cause them to have difficulty relaxing.
- Stress: Although it might not seem like stress is related to scapula muscle pain, there is good evidence that mental and emotional stress can cause muscle tightness. Prolonged stress can cause the low but constant activation of the scapula muscles, meaning you could be tensing them for a large portion of the day. This can result in tightness across your whole upper back and cause the muscles to go into spasm.
- Awkward sleeping postures: Most adults tend to stay in relatively the same position for the duration of the time they spend sleeping. Sleeping in an awkward posture where your back is not supported properly can cause contraction of the scapula muscles throughout the night.
Causes for Acute Scapula Muscle Spasm
- Dehydration: Your muscles require enough water to function properly. Although you may not feel thirsty throughout the day, it is important to continually hydrate yourself. Your muscles require water to contract and relax properly. Unfortunately, beverages such as tea and coffee can not hydrate you as they contain caffeine. Even though these beverages also contain water, the caffeine in them has a diuretic affect; meaning they encourage the body to get rid of fluids through urination.
- Low Potassium Levels: Potassium is an electrolyte that has a direct role in muscle contraction and relaxation. Potassium can be lost through sweat and urination and can be the main cause of acute muscle spasms and cramps.
- Low Magnesium: Magnesium also plays an important role in the relaxation of muscles. Magnesium works by encouraging the brain to send relaxing nerve signals to your scapula muscles. Low magnesium levels could impact your muscles ability to relax after a workout or at night, causing cramps in your scapula muscles.
- Low Vitamin D Levels: Vitamin D has an important role in proper muscle function despite its more common relation to bone health. Vitamin D assists the absorption of calcium and magnesium – both which are vital for smooth muscle contractions. So even if you are getting adequate magnesium and calcium intake, if you have low vitamin D levels, your body may not be able to absorb and use it effectively.
Whether you are experiencing chronic or acute scapula muscle spasm, there are effective options to get relief from both.
Chronic Scapula Muscle Spasm treatment:
Soft Tissue Occupational Therapy:
Soft Tissue Occupational Therapists specialise in treating people with chronic muscle spasming. They treat using hands on techniques to release muscle tension, increase mobility and decrease pain. Soft Tissue Occupational Therapists also work to improve the strength and flexibility of weak, tight muscles, and also increase joint stability. They also work holistically, that is, they assess not just how your scapula muscle spasm pain may in impacting your movement, but also your daily activities including your work and leisure activities.
Heat is an effective was to reduce scapula muscle spasm pain at home. Heat helps to relax tight muscles, easing pain and increasing blood flow. Blood is vital for muscle function as it brings nutrients and oxygen into the muscle and carries out toxins and waste from normal metabolic functions. When blood flow is increased to the muscles, they can heal effectively and will become less painful.
Regular stretching is beneficial for decreasing muscle pain, and preventing further tightness. Stretching increases the length of muscles, assisting in muscle relaxation and preventing contractures. There are a few different stretches you can do daily that target different muscles around your scapula.
- Rhomboid stretch: your rhomboids are located between your scapular and your spine and can often be the cause of scapula muscle pain. To stretch your rhomboids, clasp your hands together and straighten your arms at shoulder height. Reach your hands away from your chest and round your back. It may help to imagine the pushing the centre of your back away from you. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 1-2 times.
Photo: My Health Alberta
- Pectoralis Stretch: your pectoral muscles are large flat muscles covering your chest and assist the scapula muscles in moving the arm. When these become tight they may over stretch the muscles of your upper back, causing fatigue and pain. It is also important to stretch your pectoral muscles when you stretch your rhomboids to ensure even muscle balance. To stretch your pectorals, start by standing next to a door frame and hold your arm out to the side at shoulder height, with your elbow at a right angle. Place your forearm and elbow on the door frame and lean forward until you feel a stretch on your chest. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat both sides. You may also complete this stretch bilaterally.
Photo: Fit Engine
Acute Scapula Muscle Spasm treatment:
Water: Increasing your water intake may be all you need to do to get rid of acute muscle spasms and cramps in your scapula muscles. How much you need to drink will depend on your personal circumstances, but a drink bottle a day is a good start. During hot weather and exercise, it is particularly important to up your intake of water as you will also lose it through sweating. Making sure you have a drink bottle at work that you can refill is a good reminder to keep drinking during the day.
Increase your potassium levels:
If you find that increasing your water intake is not relieving your acute scapula muscle spasms, you can also look at increasing your potassium intake. Hydralyte and coconut water are both good sources of potassium to add to your diet.
Magnesium can also be useful to help muscles relax. Magnesium supplements are readily available from super markets and chemists. There are a large variety of magnesium pills, powders and capsules on the market but not all of them are effective. Magnesium powder is easily absorbed by your body compared to tablets, and magnesium amino acid chelate is the most bioavailable form.
If none of the above treatments are providing you with relief from scapula muscle spasm pain, it may be worth looking into your vitamin D levels. You can talk to your GP if you think you may be deficient. Vitamin D can be found in fatty fish such as tuna, mackerel and salmon.