Snapping scapula syndrome is a condition that involves the bones and tissues of the shoulder blade (scapula). It is usually characterized by a loud popping or cracking sound that occurs when the arm is lifted and raised above the head.

In the medical community, we call this sound crepitus. Many patients also report experiencing a grating, grinding, thumping, or ‘snapping’ sensation with snapping scapula. While this condition is uncommon, it can result in severe discomfort and structural problems.  Address these issues rather sooner than later.

Symptoms of Snapping Scapula Syndrome

Snapping scapula syndrome is typically caused by bone or soft tissue problems that can range from mild to severe. In many cases, it develops as a result of the following:

  • Repetitive overhead movements
  • Muscle weakness
  • Scapula or rib cage problems
  • Tumors
  • Poor arm posture
  • Overuse of the arm
  • Incorrect joint motion
  • Neck conditions
  • Muscle tightness
  • Inflammation of the muscles
  • Nerve damage

Snapping scapula can be extremely painful and can lead to other problems because of how irritating it can be. The sheer stress of the pain can lead to health deterioration, so it is important to address immediately.

Before we look at diagnosing snapping scapula and some of the most effective treatments, let’s go over some of the common symptoms associated with this condition:

  • Pain in the upper back or top of the shoulder when raising the arm above the head
  • A grinding or snapping sensation in the shoulder blade
  • Thick tissue in the shoulder blade
  • Weakness in the arm
  • Swelling in the shoulder
  • Shoulder instability or weakness
  • Tenderness

Diagnosing Snapping Scapula

Snapping scapula syndrome usually stems from soft tissue problems like inflammation or repetitive motion. To accurately diagnose this condition, we perform a physical examination during which time the patient will be instructed to raise and lower their arm while the doctor observes the range of motion and physical structure.

Although it is less common than many other conditions involving the shoulder and neck, we often see it in athletes such as swimmers, baseball players, and those who lift weights.

If you have pain or stiffness in your shoulder, notice any popping, snapping, or grinding when lifting your arm, or are experiencing weakness or fatigue in the arm, you may want to talk to your doctor about snapping scapula syndrome. A physical therapist can help with the treatment, but there are several options available, depending on severity.

Treating the Scapular Snapping

At OSA, Dr. John Atwater and his team strive to educate patients and provide the information and support necessary to recover from conditions like snapping scapula. The type of treatment will depend on a host of factors, namely the origin of the problem. If it is coming from the soft tissues, you may be able to find relief through nonsurgical treatments such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, injections, physical therapy, or acupuncture.

Severe cases of snapping scapula syndrome (and depending on the cause of the pain) are sometimes treated with arthroscopic bursectomy and / or scapular dissection if there is a piece of bone rubbing up against the rib cage. We use surgery in times when nonsurgical treatment has failed over a long period.

There are also a handful of at-home exercises you can perform to relieve any pain or other symptoms associated with snapping scapula syndrome. These exercises focus on increasing range of motion, strengthening the shoulder and arm, and creating more openness in the affected area.

If you have any questions about this article or typical treatments, or if you would like to discuss your symptoms with Dr. John Atwater, contact OSA today and schedule an appointment.

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