Feeling an unknown pain is never a fun experience, and can cause you to distress if it persists for more than a day. If you have unexplained pain in your collarbone or clavicle area, you might be wondering what is going on. Before you panic, however, know that it’s probably very treatable. There are several prevalent causes of collarbone pain in the medical world.
What Causes Collarbone Pain?
The collarbone or clavicle is a thin, delicate bone that holds up our shoulders and neck. It extends from the breastbone in the middle of the chest to the shoulders. Without the clavicle, we wouldn’t be able to use our shoulders properly, as it connects our shoulders and arms to the rest of our body.
Unfortunately it’s easy to damage your collarbone. If we work out too hard or have an accident, the pain in the collarbone can last for months or years. However, there are different causes for this pain, and it’s not all catastrophic.
Common Causes of Collarbone Pain
Although there are many reasons why a person might feel collarbone pain, some are more common than others. Whether you have experienced a pulled muscle that needs a few days to heal or a collarbone fracture, you should be able to identify your pain and decide whether a doctor’s visit is necessary.
The most common cause of severe collarbone pain is a fracture. Because the collarbone is a delicate and small bone, it is more likely to fracture than many other bones in the body: collarbone fractures and dislocations account for over 5% of all adult fracture cases.
A collarbone fracture is easy to spot. You will experience sharp, digging pain and see swelling and bruising on your collarbone. Usually, this happens after a hard impact, such as a car accident or a bad fall. If you experience this pain and see the swelling and bruising, go to the doctor.
A clavicle fracture is easy to reset and mend but must be dealt with immediately. If you leave the pain for days or weeks, it could repair itself improperly and leave you in chronic pain or without a functioning collarbone. If you think your collarbone is fractured or broken, visit the emergency room immediately.
Sometimes, another bone can fracture and affect the collarbone area. This most commonly happens with ribs, especially ribs higher up on the rib cage. If your upper ribs are fractured, they could push into areas they weren’t meant to be, including near your collarbone.
A fractured rib will mostly hurt where the break is - at the rib itself. However, the swelling and pain can affect muscles and joints all around it, across the chest and up into the shoulders. Cracking additional ribs could cause pain to your back and sides as well.
Pain from a rib fracture is pretty severe, so it’s unlikely that you’ll only feel it in your collarbone. However, if there’s swelling, bruising, or inflammation anywhere near the pain, it’s a smart idea to see a medical professional and get it under an x-ray machine.
Past Collarbone Trauma
However, not all collarbone pain means that you are in immediate danger and need to see a doctor as soon as possible. If you know that you’ve broken your collarbone before and are having recurring pain, it could be that your bones are adjusting to their new shape and strength.
It is common for people who have broken bones to feel aches and pains in that place years later. This is not a myth - it is usually because your joints are still compensating for the broken bone, even after it heals. You might feel pain from a past fracture when you’re stressed, or when there’s a change in the weather.
However, if you had a collarbone fracture years ago and it still hurts constantly, that is a reason to see a doctor or physical therapist. It could be that the bone never healed properly and is grinding against your other bones or that your muscles need specific exercises to become strong enough to support it.
Unfortunately, some people have arthritis or osteoarthritis, a condition that affects the bones and joints. As you get older, osteoarthritis causes your bones to wear down slowly and grind against each other and the muscles around them. This condition is genetic and can be treated but not cured.
If you have been diagnosed with osteoarthritis and are experiencing increased pain in your collarbone area, talk to your doctor or physical therapist about it. There may be some exercises or medications that can relieve the pain and slow the progression of the disease.
However, if you have lingering joint and bone pain in your collarbone area, especially after exercising, you might be experiencing the first symptoms of arthritis. Next time you are at the doctor’s, you can ask about it for more information and to run tests.
Thoracic Outlet Syndrome
A less common but serious condition that can affect your collarbone is Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. The thoracic outlet lies between your collarbone and your highest rib and is filled with nerves, muscles, and blood vessels. If this space becomes restricted, it can cause multiple health issues, including collarbone pain.
With thoracic outlet syndrome, the collarbone slips into the thoracic cavity and puts too much pressure on the nerves and blood vessels that live there. It’s usually caused by underlying health issues, shoulder injuries, or weakened shoulder muscles.
If you are experiencing shoulder and clavicle pain as well as any numbness or tingling in your arms and hands (especially your thumbs), see your doctor as soon as possible. Thoracic outlet syndrome is more easily treatable the earlier it is identified.
Joint Injury or Pulled Muscle
If you tend to exercise a lot, there’s a chance that your workout strained a joint or pulled a muscle near your collarbone. It might be putting some stress on the bone itself, leading to pain near your clavicle.
If this is the case, the pain will be persistent, but there shouldn’t be any swelling or sharp pain. It will feel like a pulled muscle anywhere else in your body and be sore, especially when you move it. Don’t exercise that muscle or area of your body for a few days to allow it to heal completely.
Joint injuries are a little more severe than pulled muscles. They do not heal as quickly, and if the continued strain is put on the joint, it can lead to permanent damage. If your collarbone pain doesn’t fade after a few days, contact a doctor for further testing. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.
Soreness or Sleeping Position
Of course, there’s a chance that your collarbone hurts for completely mundane reasons. You could have pulled it while lifting a box or reaching into a high cabinet, and your body is adjusting to an extra tight muscle. It could simply be sore from exercise or unusual use.
A common reason for mild collarbone or clavicle pain is sleeping position. Too many nights of sleeping without proper neck and shoulder support can lead to cricked neck, back, or shoulder pain. If you sleep on your side, you are at increased risk for these pains. Ensure that you have proper pillow support when you sleep.
Clavicle pain from soreness or the improper sleeping position is mild and will go away eventually as long as the problem is fixed. However, if you continue to sleep in a way that damages your collarbone, it might become a bigger issue eventually. Pay attention to how you feel in the mornings, and adjust pillows if necessary.
Less Common Reasons
Of course, there are less common causes of continual collarbone pain. If you’ve explored all the options above, you might be looking at something more serious or something that doesn’t apply to as many people.
Although it’s unlikely, lingering and sharp pain in the collarbone could be a sign of the malignant cells that cause cancer. Like any bone or joint, the collarbone can be a host for cancerous tumors. Doctors will run multiple tests for the more common reasons of collarbone pain before moving to this extreme, but it is a distant possibility.
Osteomyelitis is a rare bone infection that can cause extreme pain, tender joints, and fragile bones that break and pierce the skin. If you have experienced sepsis or pneumonia or have an open wound near your collarbone, you’re more likely to have this infection. It will show up in tenderness, pain, and pus oozing through the skin.
Distal Clavicular Osteolysis
Distal clavicular osteolysis is a condition where the collarbone suffers multiple small fractures, specifically on the shoulder end of the clavicle. This usually occurs after too much weightlifting and, if left untreated, can permanently damage the shoulders and collarbone. Treatment includes physiotherapy and steroids.
Before you jump to any horrible conclusions about what causes collarbone pain, you should give yourself a few days to recover, as it’s likely you just slept at the wrong angle or overextended yourself while exercising. However, if the pain persists, see a medical professional and let them discover what is wrong and how to help.