Snapping scapula syndrome: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, and Diagnosis

snapping scapula syndrome

Snapping scapula syndrome is a syndrome where the movement of these joints causes sensations or sounds such as grating, grinding, or popping. The scapulothoracic joints are where the shoulder blade (also known as the scapula) glides along the chest wall (the Thorax).

Snapping the scapula syndrome can occur in a small percentage of cases. It occurs when the soft tissues between your scapula (and the chest wall) become thickened, irritated, or inflamed. If the bones of the shoulder blade and rib cage rub against each other, snapping scapula can also occur.

What is Snapping Scapula Syndrome?

What is Snapping Scapula Syndrome

Snapping scapula syndrome refers to the popping, grinding, grating, or “snapping” of bones and tissue at the shoulder blade region when lifting and moving the arms. It could be due to soft or bone problems.

  • Bones may be misshaped or malformed at birth. As the scapula moves, it might bump into a misshaped bone. It can cause a grinding, grating, or another unpleasant sound.
  • The muscles between the scapula can become tight, skinny, or scarred. The scapula may become too close to the back of the rib cage. It may rub on the ribs when arm movement is performed.
  • Bursae, which are fluid-filled sacs acting as cushions, are fluid-filled. These cushions reduce friction between your scapula, the rib cage, and the muscles. Bursa cushions can be irritated by rubbing the scapula. A bursa can become inflamed and roll over when the shoulder moves or fail to reduce friction.

Snapping scapula syndrome is possible by:

  • Repetitive exercises such as throwing a ball or reaching overhead.
  • Incorrect training methods in sports, such as training too hard or without sufficient prior strengthening.
  • Incorrect posture.
  • Swelling in the shoulder region
  • Tightness of the muscles in the chest, neck, and shoulder areas or the scapula.
  • Conditions around the neck
  • Joint problems in the shoulder.
  • Tumors
  • Fractures of the ribs and scapula that are not healed.
  • Inflammation of the bursae or muscles.
  • Nerve damage to the shoulder area.

Sometimes, it can take several months to recover from snapping the scapula syndrome fully. However, you might feel some improvement in a matter of weeks. The cause of the condition, the severity, and each individual’s goals will determine the healing time.

What does it feel like?

Snapping scapula syndrome can be experienced by someone with:

  • When you lift your arms overhead or reach for the shoulders, it can cause pain in your back.
  • When lifting an arm, you may feel a snapping, grinding, or grating sensation in your scapula.
  • Feeling of weakness in the arm.
  • The “winging” of your scapula makes the shoulder blade look as though it is reaching out from the body.
  • Pain or weakness in the scapula can cause difficulty with overhead arm movements.
  • There is a noticeable difference in the way that the painful scapula moves.

Snapping scapula syndrome Anatomy

Which body parts are affected by this condition?

The shoulder is composed of three bones: the upper arm bone, the clavicle (collarbone), and the scapula (shoulder). The front of the scapula, where it touches the chest wall, is attached by two large muscles.

The subscapularis, or front muscle, links to the chest wall at the top of the scapula. The serratus anterior attaches to the edge of the scapula closest to the spine. It runs in front of your scapula and wraps around your chest wall. Finally, it connects to the ribs at the front of your chest.

Bursa is a fluid-filled bag that protects body tissues from friction. The bursa is located between the two muscles that make up the scapula. A bursa can also be found between the serratus anterior and chest wall. Bursitis is a condition where bursa sacs inflame and cause inflammation.

Scapulothoracic Bursitis is inflammation of the bursa below the shoulder blade. This type of bursitis occurs in the upper corner closest to the spine.

It can also happen under the lower tip. It can also cause snapping scapula syndrome, a sensation that generates the sound and feeling of popping. Bursitis can occur in any joint, even if there is no grinding or popping.

Snapping scapula syndrome Causes

Problems in the soft tissues and bones of the scapula or chest wall can cause snapping scapula. The inflammation can cause the tissues between the shoulder blade and scapula to thicken. Repetitive movements are often the cause of inflammation. Repeated motions, such as hanging wallpaper or pitching baseballs, can cause inflammation in the tissues.

Other times, the muscles below the scapula may have contracted (atrophied) due to weakness or inactivity. It means that the scapula bone rides closer to the rib cage. It is because the scapula rubs against the rib bones when it moves.

Snapping of the scapula can also be caused by changes in the shape or alignment of the bones at the scapulothoracic joints. A fractured rib or scapula can lead to a jagged line that causes the distinctive snapping sound as the scapula moves across the chest wall.

If there are abnormal curves, bumps, or ledges at the top of the scapula, it can cause grinding and snapping. These abnormalities are known as Luschka’s tubercles. A bursa is formed when the bone is abnormal. Bursitis can then occur when the bursa becomes inflamed.

What are the symptoms of snapping scapula syndrome?

As the scapula moves along the chest wall, it may vibrate, grind, or snap. Crepitus is another name for these grinding sensations. Sometimes, the joint pops and thumps when it moves. These sensations are not usually associated with pain.

However, scapulothoracic pain is a condition that can be caused by crepitus. The bursa sore is tender to the touch and often feels thick.

Snapping Scapula Syndrome: A Guide for Physical Therapy

Snapping scapula syndrome refers to the popping, grating, and grinding of bones and tissue around the shoulder blade (scapula) when the arm is lifted or moved. These symptoms can be very painful and sometimes make a loud sound.

People who do repetitive overhead movements are most likely to experience snapping scapula syndrome.

The syndrome can be caused by stocking shelves or other activities like weightlifting, swimming, or baseball. Another cause could be a fractured shoulder blade or rib cage bone condition and muscle weakness or tumors.

Snapping scapula syndrome can be caused by overuse of the arm, improper joint motion, poor posture, and poor posture during activities. 

It can also be caused by one incident of trauma to the shoulder blade. Snapping scapula syndrome can lead to muscle weakness, pain, loss of movement, soft tissue swelling, and muscle weakness.

Physical therapists are movement specialists who can improve the quality of your life by providing hands-on care, education, and prescribed movement.

What does it feel like?

how does it feel like

Snapping scapula syndrome can be experienced by someone with:

  • When you lift your arms overhead or shrug your shoulders, it can cause pain in the back or top portion of the shoulder.
  • When lifting an arm, you may feel a snapping, grinding, or grating sensation in your scapula.
  • Feeling of weakness in the arm.
  • The “winging” of your scapula makes the shoulder blade look as though it is reaching out from the body.
  • Pain or weakness in the scapula can cause difficulty with overhead arm movements.
  • There is a noticeable difference in the way that the painful scapula moves.

How Snapping scapula syndrome diagnosed?

A thorough evaluation will be conducted if you first see your physical therapist. Your health history will also be taken. The physical therapist will also ask detailed questions about your injury, such as:

  • When and how did you feel the pain first?
  • Are you able to feel or hear any clicking, grinding, or popping when moving your arm? These symptoms can be caused by what activities you are engaging in when they occur.
  • Are you experiencing pain in your neck or stiffness?
  • Do you feel tired or weak in your shoulders?

Your physical therapist will do special tests to determine if snapping scapula syndrome is present. The physical therapist will also determine if your pain is coming out of your shoulder joint, neck, or other areas or if it is only affecting your shoulder blade.

Your physical therapist might team up with an orthopedic doctor or another health care provider to help you reach a diagnosis. They perhaps order imaging tests such as an X-ray to rule out any other damage to the spine, bones, or scapula to confirm the diagnosis. In all cases, an X-ray may not be necessary.

What can a physical therapist do to help on Snapping scapula syndrome?

snapping scapula syndrome physical therapist
Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

Your physical therapist will help you design a treatment plan that will speed up your recovery. You can also do the activities at home. You can safely return to your normal lifestyle and activities with physical therapy.

Initial 24 to 48 hours

Your physical therapist might advise you to:

  • You can rest the area by not lifting your arm above your head or doing other activities that cause pain.
  • Ice packs should be applied to the scapula for 15-20 minutes each two hours.
  • When standing or sitting, ensure that your spine is straight.
  • For further services such as medication and diagnostic tests, consult a physician.

Your physical therapist will help you:

Reduce pain

To relieve your symptoms and pain, your physical therapist might use different technologies and treatments. These could include heat, heat, ultrasound, diathermy, and laser treatment.

You can improve your motion. The physical therapist will recommend specific exercises and treatments that can help restore normal movement of the neck, shoulder, and spine.

The physical therapist might start with passive motions to help you move your arm, shoulder, and neck. As you progress, you can do active exercises and stretches.

Increase flexibility

Tight muscles in the neck, shoulder, and chest can cause snapping scapula syndrome. Your physical therapist will check these and any other tight muscles.

They will show you how to stretch them gently. To assist you in stretching and relax your muscles, your physical therapist might use hands-on techniques such as trigger-point release and massage.

Increase strength and speed up recovery. Each stage of your recovery will require specific exercises to aid in healing.

Your physical therapist will help you choose the suitable activities and equipment to gradually restore strength and agility, which is your ability to move quickly and efficiently.

Your physical therapist will help you get back to your health, reach your goals, and choose the best activities and treatments to help you heal.

Return to your activities.

Your goals will be discussed with your physical therapist. Your job, sport, or homelife goals will be discussed with your physical therapist. 

The treatment program will assist you in reaching those goals in the most efficient, safest, and fastest way.

Prevent future injury.

To prevent injury from happening again, your physical therapist may recommend a home exercise program. These exercises will strengthen and stretch your arm and shoulder muscles. These exercises may include strengthening and flexibility exercises for your neck, shoulder, arm, and scapula.

Surgery is necessary

Snapping scapula syndrome is a common condition that does not require surgery. Your physical therapist will guide you through a program of recovery if surgery is necessary. They will assist you in minimizing pain and restoring motion and strength so that you can return to your typical exercises as soon as possible.

Rehabilitation for Snapping scapula syndrome


Nonsurgical Rehabilitation

Nonsurgical patients may also be eligible for occupational or physical therapy as part of their rehabilitation plan. Your therapist might help you with your pain and inflammation.

The therapist will also assess your posture to ensure that the spine and shoulders are in the best alignment. The strengthening of the muscles under your scapula can help cushion and cushion the soft tissue between your rib cage and your scapula.

After Surgery

After surgery, therapy is more complicated. Then scapula surgery, patients wear a sling. After surgery, passive shoulder movements may begin.

For eight weeks, you should avoid any active exercise to ensure that the muscles heal correctly from the drilling holes in the scapula. After 12 weeks, people usually begin to resistive exercise and other activities.

Is it possible to prevent this injury or condition?

Your physical therapist might recommend the following to help you prevent a recurrence.

  • Keep your posture straight and avoid slouching.
  • Keep your strength in the shoulder and scapula joints.
  • When performing overhead movements, use proper athletic techniques.

What kind of physical therapist do I need?

Physical therapists have the education and experience necessary to treat the snapping-scapula syndrome. You might also want to:

  • An orthopedic therapist is a physical therapist who has experience in treating patients with injuries to their spines. A few physical therapists specialize in orthopedics.
  • A board-certified clinical specialist or a fellowship in sports or orthopedic physical therapy. A physical therapist can apply their knowledge and experience to your particular condition.

These are some general tips for anyone looking to find a physical therapist or other health care provider:

  • Ask for recommendations from friends and family.
  • Ask about physical therapists’ experience in treating people with your injury when you call a clinic to make an appointment.
  • Prepare to discuss your symptoms and what is causing them.
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