Breast cancer can lead to shoulder blade pain from both the condition and the treatment. Learning ways to manage breast cancer-related shoulder pain can help ease symptoms and improve quality of life.

Shoulder pain can occur in the muscles, tendons, cartilage, and joints near or at the shoulder. Shoulder pain may occur due to an injury, overuse, or a musculoskeletal condition. However, in some cases, breast cancer can cause shoulder pain.

The severity of the pain may vary and range from mild to severe.

This article examines how breast cancer can cause shoulder pain, what the pain may feel like, and treatments for shoulder pain related to breast cancer.

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In certain instances, it is possible for breast cancer to cause pain in the shoulder or shoulder blade.

If shoulder pain develops due to breast cancer, it may occur because the cancer has metastasized, which means it has spread to the bones in or near the shoulder. About 50% of cancers that start in the organs can spread to the bones.

When breast cancer spreads, it is often to the bones. Bone involvement occurs in about 70% of people with metastatic breast cancer.

Shoulder pain due to metastasized breast cancer may occur when tumors press on the nerves in the area. Cancer that has spread to the bones may also weaken the bone and lead to a fracture.

Pain in the right shoulder may also indicate that breast cancer has spread to the liver. Some of the nerves around the liver attach near the shoulder blade.

Learn more about the causes of shoulder blade pain.

According to the Moffitt Cancer Center, shoulder pain from metastasized breast cancer may feel similar to arthritic pain or pain from a strain after exercising.

According to the American Cancer Society, the pain from bone metastases tends to worsen at night and improve with movement. It may come and go at first, but the pain may persist as it progresses.

Different forms of treatment may cause shoulder pain. For example, after breast cancer surgery, nerve pain may develop in a condition called post-mastectomy pain syndrome. This can happen after a mastectomy or lumpectomy. The pain may also affect the chest wall, arm, and armpit.

Post-mastectomy pain syndrome is fairly common, affecting between 20 and 30% of people who have breast cancer surgery.

Another possible complication of surgery for breast cancer is axillary web syndrome (AWS). AWS involves the development of tight bands of tissue under the skin, which may stretch down the arm. The bands may lead to pain in the shoulder when someone extends their arms. AWS develops in about 50% of people after breast cancer surgery.

Nerve damage from radiation therapy may also cause shoulder pain in some instances.

Learn more about breast cancer treatments.

Treatments that help with shoulder pain may depend on the underlying cause. In general, treatment may include:

If shoulder pain occurs due to cancer, it may take a multifaceted approach, including pain education, medication, and physical therapy. Treatment for bone metastasis, such as radiation therapy, may also help.

It is best for a person to contact their doctor for advice on how to treat shoulder pain that may occur due to metastasized breast cancer or as a result of related treatments.

Here are some frequently asked questions about cancer and shoulder pain.

What cancer causes shoulder blade pain?

Pancoast tumors may cause shoulder pain as a symptom. The area of tumor growth is in the superior sulcus groove at the top of the lungs. This can lead to shoulder pain.

Pancoast tumors account for about 3–5% of all lung cancer cases.

Liver cancer can also cause shoulder blade pain on the right side.

Learn about liver cancer.

How do I know if my shoulder blade hurts from cancer?

The doctor may order imaging scans to confirm whether shoulder blade pain is due to breast cancer that has spread to the bones.

It is important to note that there are numerous possible causes of shoulder pain or shoulder blade pain. A doctor will be able to perform a physical examination and, depending on any other symptoms you may be experiencing, order tests to help determine the cause.

In some instances, breast cancer can lead to shoulder blade pain. Shoulder pain can occur due to the spread of cancer to the bones. It can also develop as a side effect of breast cancer treatment, such as surgery.

Treatment for shoulder pain can include medication, heat and ice, and physical therapy. A person’s doctor can determine the cause of shoulder pain and advise on suitable treatments.