Rhomboid Muscle Pain: Causes and Effective Home Treatments

Rhomboid Muscle Pain: Causes, Treatments and Prevention
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Rhomboid muscle pain is felt between your shoulder blade and spine in your upper back and is caused by stretching, straining, or tearing your rhomboids. Your rhomboid muscle comprises of 2 parts – the minor rhomboid muscle and the major rhomboid muscle. Sudden arm movements, muscle injury, or repetitive strain injuries can stretch or tear the rhomboid muscle, causing pain and stiffness just beneath the neck between your shoulder blades.

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Rhomboid muscle pain can affect sports people, office workers, or anyone who has suffered a back or shoulder injury. Along with the pain in the upper back, you may experience localized swelling, pins and needles in your shoulders or arms, difficulty moving your arms, and tenderness around your shoulder blades. To ease rhomboid muscle strain, physiotherapists and doctors usually recommend a combination of hot and cold treatments and plenty of rest.

One way to avoid suffering pain in your rhomboid muscle, shoulder blade, and upper back is to improve your posture and make sure to warm up before exercising. This makes sure that all your back muscles are used correctly and are not put under unnecessary strain to prevent rhomboid muscle knots.

In this article, you will learn about the causes of rhomboid muscle pain and how to treat upper back pain. You will also find out some useful exercises to strengthen your back muscles to help prevent recurring rhomboid muscle pain.

What is Your Rhomboid Muscle?

Your rhomboid muscle is an upper back muscle that is necessary for arm movement. The rhomboid muscle group has a minor and major parts and together are commonly referred to as the rhomboids.

According to the Sports Injury Clinic, the rhomboid muscles are located on either side of your upper spine (thoracic spine) and connect your spine to your scapula or shoulder blade.1 You can locate the rhomboids if you put one arm over its opposite shoulder and reach as far down the middle of your back as you can.

Rhomboid muscles support shoulder blade movement and arm movement. The website Study.com says that if you stand straight and squeeze your shoulder blades together, your rhomboid muscles prevent the scapula from protruding too far out from the body. You can stretch your rhomboid muscles by bringing the shoulders together at the front of your body.18

Symptoms of Rhomboid Muscle Pain

Symptoms of rhomboid muscle pain depend greatly on the type of injury sustained and its severity. Also, if you have damaged your shoulder blade or collarbone, you could also mistake rhomboid muscle pain for latissimus dorsi pain or other types of back pain.

Physiotherapists and orthopedic surgeons say that the area around the rhomboid muscle will usually be sensitive to touch. There may or may not be referred pain to the collarbone or shoulder blade.2 People with upper back pain will also complain of stiffness in the area between the shoulder blades. Pain may radiate down the arm on the side of the affected rhomboid muscle.

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Another symptom of rhomboid muscle pain is a feeling like there are muscle knots between your shoulder blade and spine. If nerves around the muscle have been trapped or pinched, then doctors from the Mayo Clinic say that you may have tingling around the affected area.3 This can result in pins and needles on the affected side of your back, shoulder, and arm. You may also experience uncomfortable rhomboid muscle spasms if the nerve has been trapped.

Causes of Rhomboid Muscle Pain

Let’s look at the various reasons why your rhomboids can cause upper back pain and discomfort. Also, knowing the type of action and injuries that can result in rhomboid pain can help to prevent being a victim of chronic back pain.

Twisting body

Twisting your body the wrong way or in a jerking motion could strain your rhomboid muscle resulting in mild to severe back pain. The pain between your shoulder blades due to twisting your body could be caused by a sharp awkward movement or being in poor physical condition.

Doctors from the Mayo Clinic say that back muscle strain is often the result of repeated lifting of heavy items or straining your spinal ligaments.4 For example, if you lift heavy items without using your legs for leverage, you may strain or stretch your rhomboid muscles.

Muscle injury

Any type of injury to your shoulders or upper back could cause damage to your rhomboid muscles. Depending on the extent of the muscle injury, the pain between your shoulders could become chronic and require regular massage to relieve the pain.

According to Dr. Talbot Sellers on Spine-health.com, upper back pain is often the result of trauma or sudden injury. These back injuries can be caused by car accidents, sports injuries, or repetitive muscle strains.5

Playing certain sports

If you regularly play sports that involve your arms, then you may end up with an injury to your rhomboids.

Any sport involving a racket or bat like tennis, baseball, or golf can strain the muscles between your shoulder blades. Also, throwing movements in baseball, football, or bowling can cause rhomboid muscle strain and damage. This can be a result of a sudden, sharp movement, or the painful upper back condition can develop over time into a tight rhomboid muscle that feels like a knot.

According to the journal Physiotherapy Canada, your rhomboid muscles are often used in sports. The rhomboids help to rotate the shoulders and also retract the shoulder blades to their normal position. The journal said that certain sports injuries can worsen shoulder movement and lead to painful conditions like “thrower’s shoulder,” or “swimmer’s shoulder.”6

Poor posture

Poor posture can lead to strain in your rhomboid muscles and a feeling like you need to massage the area between your shoulders. Sitting slouched at a desk or having your desk or chair at the wrong height can put extra strain on your back and cause tightness and pain in your upper back muscles.

The Journal of Physical Therapy Science reported that cases of office workers reporting shoulder pain is on the rise. It was reported that holding a fixed posture for a long time, working at computers all day, and repetitive motions can all cause shoulder pain. It was found that therapeutic exercise and massaging helped to relieve the pain and prevent the back muscles from tightening into knots and becoming painful.7

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There is growing evidence that sitting for long periods of time have a negative effect on your general health. Apart from being to blame for upper back pain, sitting for extended periods of time is linked to obesity, poor cardiac health, and weakened muscles. Sitting for extended periods of time can also cause lower left back pain or lower right back pain.

Compressing an upper back nerve

Your rhomboid muscles are also connected to a network of nerves and if one of those nerves get pinched or pressed, you can get rhomboid muscle pain. This can cause a dull ache that is felt in the middle of the upper back and along the shoulder blades.

Experienced chiropractor, Dr. Hans Boehnke says that rhomboid pain resulting from trapped nerves is often experienced by people who frequently have their hands above their heads or outstretched for long periods. Manual workers like electricians often suffer from tension in the rhomboids. This can cause pain down the edge of the shoulder blade and muscle weakness.8

How to Treat Painful Rhomboid Muscle

Treating rhomboid muscle pain successfully requires loosening the muscles in the back of your neck and between your spine and scapula and looking at ways of strengthening the back muscles. According to Doctor of Osteopathy, Dr. Talbot, relieving rhomboid muscle pain requires a lot of stretching and strengthening exercises.5

R.I.C.E. method

If you experience acute pain in your rhomboids because of an injury or muscle strain or tear, it’s important to apply first aid procedures. These help to reduce soft tissue swelling, prevent inflammation, and relieve pain immediately from the damaged muscles.

According to the journal Best Practices & Research Clinical Rheumatology, the RICE principle is used to reduce the severity of muscle injuries. Using Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation, you can help reduce any swelling around the injury and help speed up recovery.9

How to use:

To quickly reduce pain and swelling if you have injured your upper back, this is how you can use the RICE method:

  1. Rest. You should completely rest the shoulder and upper back muscles by avoiding activities that could cause more strain and injury.
  2. Ice. Put ice in a plastic bag and wrap in a thin towel. Place the cold pack on the upper back area between your shoulder blades to relieve the pain in your rhomboids.
  3. Compression. If possible, bandage the shoulder area to help prevent inflammation in the muscle injury.
  4. Elevation. Try to sit upright as much as possible to improve blood circulation and speed up the healing process of the rhomboids.

Doctors from the Mayo Clinic recommend placing the ice pack on the injured muscles in the shoulder for 15 to 20 minutes every 3 or 4 hours. After 2 days, you should switch to using a heat pack to relieve muscle pain in your upper back. The warmth improves blood circulation and relaxes tightened sore rhomboid muscles.10

Massage

Massage is a great way to help relieve chronic pain in your rhomboid muscles and get rid of rhomboid muscle knots. Massaging the painful area at the top of your back helps to loosen the tightened and strained muscles that are causing pain.

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According to chiropractors, massaging is an effective way to relieve rhomboid muscle strain and pain. Massaging the upper back focuses on releasing tension from the trapezius and rhomboid muscles to help the muscle fibers heal. Massaging also helps to relieve the feeling like there are knots irritating your back.11

You may need to visit a qualified masseur or chiropractor to arrange a professional back massage to relieve chronic rhomboid muscle pain. However, you can find some helpful ways to relieve back pain at home yourself.

You can also use a foam roller to massage sore rhomboid muscles to relieve muscle pain and tension. You can get a step by step instructions (including illustrations) in my article on how to use a foam roller to relieve back pain.

Another thing you can try is to add essential oils for muscle pain to your massage oil and use it to treat rhomboid muscle pain.

Improve posture

Apart from helping to prevent upper back pain, improving your posture can greatly relieve painful muscles in the top of your back.

According to doctors from the National Health Service, you can improve posture and relieve upper back and rhomboid pain while sitting at a desk if you do the following:12

  • Adjust your chair so that your forearms are straight and level with the floor. Your arms should be in an “L” shape.
  • Your feet should be flat on the floor so don’t sit cross-legged.
  • Make sure your computer screen is at eye level.
  • Take regular breaks and flex your back and shoulder muscles to relax them.

Please read my article on great exercises to help strengthen your back and improve posture for ways to help treat back pain.

Consume more ginger

If you suffer from constant pain in your rhomboid muscles or other joints and ligaments, you should eat more ginger in your diet. Ginger is a delicious herb that has anti-inflammatory properties when you ingest it.

Information published by the American Pain Society found that supplementing your diet with ginger can help to reduce muscle pain caused by exercise. The researchers of the study commented that ginger has pain-relieving properties and can help treat chronic conditions that are characterized by pain.13

For more information on how to use ginger and other herbs for muscle pain relief, please read my article on natural alternatives to ibuprofen.

Exercises to Strengthen the Rhomboid Muscle

Managing rhomboid muscle pain and preventing stiffness and discomfort in the areas between your spine and shoulders can be achieved by strengthening your upper back muscles. The Journal of Physical Therapy Science in 2017 reported that pulling exercises are helpful to strengthen the rhomboid muscles and reduce trapezius tension.14

Here are some rhomboid strengthening exercises:

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Shoulder blade squeeze

You can do the shoulder blade squeeze exercise to strengthen and flex your rhomboid muscles. This is the perfect exercise if you have a stiff upper back due to sitting at a desk all day. This is what you should do:

  1. Sit with your back straight, your chin slightly tucked in, and your shoulders back.
  2. Gently squeeze your shoulder blades together as far as possible to tighten your rhomboids.
  3. Hold for 5 seconds and repeat 10 times.

Darts

The darts exercise requires having enough room to lay flat out on the floor. This is what you should do:

  1. Lay on your belly with your arms by your side.
  2. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and slowly lift your arms and chest off the ground, keeping your neck straight.
  3. Hold for 2 seconds then slowly return to the starting position. Repeat 3 times.
  4. Repeat step three 10 times to help increase strength in your rhomboids and prevent pain.

Resistance band pull backs

One way to strengthen your rhomboids and prevent muscle tears due to weakness is to train with resistance bands. This is what you should do:

  1. Stand or kneel making sure that your back is straight.
  2. Take hold of the resistance band and hold it with your arms outstretched.
  3. Slowly pull your arms backward and squeeze your shoulder blades to tighten your rhomboid muscles.
  4. Hold for 2 seconds then slowly return to the starting position. Repeat 3 times.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 ten times to strengthen your rhomboid muscles and reduce the risk of daily muscle strain.

Posterior shoulder stretch

Another way to tone and strengthen your rhomboids is to do regular shoulder stretches. These can help prevent injuries to your shoulder and rotator cuff. For this exercise, you don’t need any special equipment. This is what you should do:

  1. Stand up straight and cross one arm across the front of your chest.
  2. Using the wrist of your other arm, pull the elbow of the outstretched arm towards your opposite shoulder.
  3. Hold for 10 to 30 seconds.
  4. Repeat with the other arm.

How to Prevent Rhomboid Muscle Pain

Many rhomboid muscle injuries and upper back injuries can be prevented with some simple steps. Of course, strengthening your back muscles is one of the best ways to prevent injuring one or more muscles. However, there are a few other ways to avoid the risk of injuring your rhomboids.

Warm up before exercising

The journal Sports Medicine reports that many muscular injuries can be prevented by warming up and stretching before exercising. A warm-up session helps to increase blood circulation and body temperature and prepares the body for physical activity. Researchers found that warm-up and stretching exercises in the 15 minutes before increased physical activity assist in muscle injury prevention.15

Don’t overuse

It’s also important to recognize your physical limitations and not to overuse your shoulder muscles. The book Frozen Shoulder Workbook says that to prevent shoulder injuries and pain, you must avoid overusing the rhomboid muscles. This is especially true if you repeatedly use your shoulders at work or sport. Make sure and take frequent breaks and stretch your shoulder muscles to keep them flexible.16

When to See a Doctor

Usually, simple home treatment methods are all you need to relieve muscle pain in the upper back area and get relief from sore rhomboids. However, in some cases, you may need to see a medical professional for your back pain.

Dr. William Blahd on WebMD advises that you should see a doctor for upper back pain if you have one or more of the following symptoms:17

  • Severe back pain that is accompanied by a squeezing pain in your left chest, jaw, left arm, or both shoulders.
  • A trauma or injury to your back has caused some spinal injuries like severe neck or back pain and weakness in your arms.
  • Loss of bladder control after a trauma.
  • Any numbness in your legs.

Read my other related articles:

Article Sources

  1. SportsInjuryClinic. Rhomboids.
  2. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther.1981;3(1):21-6.
  3. MayoClinic. Pinched nerve.
  4. MayoClinic. Back pain.
  5. Spine-health. Causes of upper back pain.
  6. Physiother Can.2016;68(1):24-8.
  7. J Phys Ther Sci. 2016 Sep; 28(9): 2422–2425.
  8. BalancedSturcutre. Dorsal scapular nerve syndrome.
  9. Best Pract Res Clin Rheumatol.2007 Apr;21(2):317-31.
  10. MayoClinic. Rotator cuff injury.
  11. ChiropractorSiouxCity. Rhomboid muscle sprain, pain, and treatment.
  12. NHS. How to sit correctly.
  13. J Pain.2010 Sep;11(9):894-903.
  14. J Phys Ther Sci. 2017 Jun; 29(6): 1043–1044.
  15. Sports Med.2007;37(12):1089-99.
  16. Frozen shoulder workbook. Shoulder pain.
  17. WebMD. Upper and middle back pain.
  18. Study.com
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