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Can Pain Between Shoulder Blades Be Caused By Acid Reflux?

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a woman sitting on the couch holding her shoulder in pain

Acid reflux is a fairly common condition in the United States, with over 15 million Americans experiencing heartburn each day. While acid reflux has a variety of symptoms, it rarely progresses to anything an antacid can’t fix. But for serious cases of acid reflux, it can manifest in some extremely painful and difficult to manage symptoms, most of which aren’t typical of your usual episode of heartburn.

So can acid reflux cause symptoms like acute pain between your shoulder blades? It can, but it usually means it’s progressed beyond simple heartburn and into Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease, or GERD. While it can require more treatment than acid reflux, the chest and back pain it causes can be managed.

How Acid Reflux, GERD, And Chest Pain Are Related

While most people use acid reflux, heartburn, and GERD interchangeably, they have specific definitions. Here is a quick definition of terms:

Aside from heartburn, GERD and acid reflux share many similar symptoms like nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath, increased abdominal pain, neck pain, and an acidic sensation in the throat and mouth.

Acid reflux will usually progress to GERD given enough time and/or lack of treatment. Because of the intensity of heartburn associated with GERD, pain may radiate from the referred area of the esophagus to your lower back.

Typically, this back pain is triggered by GERD itself, but there are other symptoms like shortness of breath, difficulty swallowing or speaking, or swelling and inflammation that can also manifest. Patients may also experience vomiting or experiencing a feeling of regurgitating food. Even if heartburn itself isn’t that severe, repeated, and consistent long-term heartburns may develop into chronic pain in the chest and back area.

Here are three acid reflux and GERD related triggers for back pain:

1. Diet

Food intake is one of the most significant triggers for back pain involving GERD, but most patients will often think that this is limited to just eating trigger foods. Since every person has different thresholds for what would trigger heartburn, other factors like how much you eat, how often you eat, and the frequency of your meals also affect how like you are to experience pain between your shoulder blades.

2. Stress

Patients experiencing elevated levels of stress are more likely to develop GERD and chronic chest pain, according to a study that interviewed over 12,000 people with GERD. This likelihood seems to persist even when medications are involved.

Significant amounts of stress can often manifest in minor changes throughout the body that compound over time. Most theories suggest that elevated levels of stress hormones in the body make you more sensitive to fluctuation in your stomach’s acid levels, and decrease the production of prostaglandins that protect the stomach from acid. 

The stress from managing acid reflux can also lead to a feedback loop, where the repeated strain on the body makes it more likely to develop into GERD. This is why it is so crucial for patients to seek medical help if they experience heartburn regularly, or their chest pain becomes more severe.

3. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)

People who take medications like aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen rarely experience acid reflux, but patients that have GERD are more likely to experience symptoms of heartburn and chest pain. Because these medications often irritate the stomach lining, which makes it more sensitive to acid levels.

Sometimes, patients using NSAIDs as a relief for back and chest pain may ease the factors that cause that pain while simultaneously developing their risk of getting GERD. This is especially apparent with patients who over-rely on NSAIDs to treat any pre-existing conditions.

Acid reflux and GERD can both trigger heartburn, but GERD has more severe episodes of heartburn that can be difficult to control without medication. Symptoms like bloating, flatulence, and incontinence can also manifest because of heartburn, which further complicates potential treatment options and place more strain on the body.

Other Reasons For Pain Between Shoulder Blades

While GERD may be a likely culprit for cases that involve chronic chest pain, there are other causes that the patient and their doctor should consider:

1. Muscle strain and active injury

One of the most common causes of pain between your shoulder blades is increased stress and strain on the muscle group in that area. Strenuous or intense activities like exercising, heavy lifting, sudden movement, and other activities can also trigger this pain.

Active injuries like spine fractures, slipped discs, or other trauma can also trigger chest pain. While problems like these often heal once the underlying condition has been treated, there are rare instances where the pain persists after the healing process. In these cases, physical therapy or surgery may be considered as a more permanent treatment option.

2. Heart attack

Shortness of breath and intense and acute chest pain can be a sign of a heart attack. Women are particularly prone to this kind of chest pain, though factors like family history and predisposition to heart attacks also play a role. These situations will almost always call for emergency medical treatment, and should never be ignored.

3. Certain types of cancer

Lymphomas, esophageal cancer, and lung cancer can all trigger acute and chronic chest pain, especially if the tumor has grown large enough to apply significant pressure on a muscle or nerve group. Cancers that spread to bones can also trigger significant amounts of pain between the shoulder blades, though this will often mean that these conditions have progressed to the mid-to-late stages of development.

4. Osteoarthritis

A typical cause of chest pain (especially in older adults) is osteoarthritis, where the cartilage surrounding the joints in the neck, spine, or ribs break down. This usually causes chronic chest pain for many patients, though it may manifest in acute pain if caught early. As a degenerative disability, physical therapy and preventive lifestyle are some of the best ways to treat it.

5. Improper sleeping position

Because the spine follows a natural curvature, improper sleeping positions can knock it out of alignment and cause pain once you wake up. This is particularly apparent in people that like to sleep on their stomach or their sides, since those are the positions that are the least conducive to proper spinal alignment.

If you experience acute or chronic pain between your shoulder blades that worsens when you wake up, your spine may be misaligned from being stuck in an improper sleeping position for so long. Doctors will usually recommend better sleeping aids like mattresses or pillows, though some serious cases may require physical therapy and surgery.

Manage Your Back Pain And Improve Your Spinal Health At The Spine And Rehab Group

Acid reflux can cause chest and back pain, but it’s better to consult your doctor for a proper diagnosis. Even if you have regular episodes of heartburn and history of GERD, any significant or different back pain should be checked so you can rule out any serious complications.

At the Spine And Rehab Group, we have extensive experience in the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of any spinal-related injuries or back pain. As one of the leading providers of spinal care in New York, we pride ourselves on our commitment to excellent customer service and effective solutions. To learn more about our services and what we can do for your back pain, visit one of our clinics today.

Learn more: What Causes Muscle Knots In The Lower Left Back?

Page Updated on Jun 20, 2022 by Dr. Hosny (Interventional Spine Specialist) of The Spine & Rehab Group
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