What could be causing my collarbone pain?
Many injuries can damage the collarbone, and some require immediate attention. When should a person seek emergency treatment, and when will a routine trip to the doctor be enough? We address these questions and more.
The collarbone, also known as the clavicle, extends from the shoulder to the breastbone.
Common causes of collarbone pain include:
- thoracic outlet syndrome
- joint injury
- sleeping position
- distal clavicular osteolysis
1. Fractures and breaks
The collarbone is among the most likely to fracture. The blunt force applied to an outstretched arm or shoulder can easily injure or break this bone.
The following activities often lead to broken or fractured collarbones:
- contact sports, such as football, martial arts, or basketball
- car accidents
How can a person identify a broken collarbone?
Collarbone breaks and fractures usually occur with shoulder injuries caused by accidents.
Pain around the collarbone will start suddenly and often grow worse as a person tries to move their shoulder. They may also feel a grinding sensation or hear a clicking noise.
Other symptoms of a broken or fractured collarbone include:
- bruising around the area
- a stiff arm
A caregiver or doctor may notice that a newborn is not moving one arm, possibly indicating a break or fracture.
A broken collarbone is diagnosed following an X-ray and an examination, in which a doctor checks for bruising or swelling.
Treatment will depend on the severity of the injury.
If the bone has remained in place, despite the break or fracture, a person will likely only need to wear a sling for a few days and rest the arm. In some cases, a doctor will recommend a brace instead.
More severe breaks may require surgery, in which a surgeon will insert pins, a rod, or a plate to keep the bone and fragments in place during healing.
2. Thoracic outlet syndrome
This occurs when the collarbone shifts from its normal position and applies pressure to the blood vessels and nerves located between the bone and the highest rib.
Potential causes of thoracic outlet syndrome include:
- poor posture
- weak shoulder muscles
- repetitive lifting or strain
- congenital disability
The following symptoms may indicate this syndrome:
- weakness in the arm
- a painful lump under the collarbone
- pain and swelling or numbness in one arm
- pain in the neck, collarbone, or shoulder
- changes to the color of the hands or fingers
Physical therapy is a common treatment. It will likely focus on strengthening the muscles around the collarbone. However, surgery may be required in more severe cases.
3. Joint injury
The acromioclavicular (AC) joint is located where the collarbone meets the top of the shoulder blade.
Separation of the joint is a common injury, sometimes caused by blunt force or a fall.
Injuring the AC joint can lead to pain, but it does not always accompany a break of the collarbone.
- a collarbone that is out of place
- a bulge above the shoulder
Depending on the severity of the injury, a doctor may recommend:
- resting the shoulder and applying ice
- using a brace to stabilize the joint
Osteoarthritis happens when protective tissue at the end of a bone wears down.
This type of arthritis is often caused by normal wear and tear that accompanies aging. In some cases, it is brought on by injury.
Symptoms of osteoarthritis in the collarbone include:
- pain in the area that gets worse very gradually
- stiffness in the AC joint
- pain in the AC joint
- nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen
- corticosteroid injections
- changes to lifestyle, which may involve avoiding activities that irritate the joint
- surgery (rarely)
5. Sleeping position
Sleeping in certain positions can cause pain in the neck, back, or collarbone. Sleeping on the same side for long periods may be especially problematic.
This pain typically eases during the day. Some may treat it with over-the-counter medications, and prevent it from changing positions during the night. New pillows or mattresses can also help with this type of pain.
6. Distal clavicular osteolysis
This is the term for small fractures developing on the end of the collarbone closest to the shoulder, known as the distal end. The condition is sometimes called weightlifter’s shoulder.
If a person does not allow these fractures to heal, they will grow worse and lead to pain and swelling.
Symptoms of distal clavicular osteolysis include:
- general aches and pain in the area
- pain when moving the arm across the body
- pain when lifting objects above the head
Treatment usually involves resting and avoiding activities that aggravate the symptoms. Other treatments may include:
- medications for pain and swelling
- steroid injections
Cancer is not a common cause of collarbone pain.
If cancer is causing the pain, it may have spread from another part of the body. For example, lymph nodes that have developed cancer tend to cause pain in neighboring areas, such as the collarbone.
Neuroblastoma is a type of cancer that often develops in bones and lymph nodes. It can affect young children as well as adults.
- high blood pressure
- rapid heartbeat
When cancer spreads to the collarbone, surgery or radiation are common treatments. Recommended methods will depend on how advanced the cancer is when treatment starts.
Osteomyelitis, a bone infection, is not very common.
The following symptoms may indicate osteomyelitis of the collarbone:
- warmth around the site of infection
- pus oozing from the skin
Below are common causes of osteomyelitis:
- bacterial infections, such as sepsis or pneumonia
- infection that occurs after a fractured collarbone punctures the skin
- infection that spreads from a wound near the collarbone
Usually, a person with osteomyelitis is hospitalized and receives intravenous antibiotics.
A doctor will likely need to drain pus from the site of the infection and stabilize the bone.
After being released, the person may continue to take antibiotics orally for several weeks or months.
When to see a doctor
Following an injury to the collarbone, contact emergency services. Upon examination, a doctor will make a diagnosis and recommend treatment. Failing to get appropriate care can delay healing or cause an injury to heal incorrectly.
See a doctor if shoulder pain is unexplained or accompanied by other symptoms.
Most people can expect a full recovery from a broken or fractured collarbone, especially if the injury is treated early.
Other causes of collarbone pain are less common and may not need medical attention.