What is collarbone pain?
Your collarbone, or clavicle, is a slightly S-shaped bone that connects your shoulder to your sternum, or breastbone. In other words, it connects the top of your arm to the rest of your body. The most common cause of collarbone pain is any injury or fracture.
Fractures are not the only cause of pain in the collarbone area. Pain could result from how you sleep, osteoarthritis, a joint injury, or a condition called thoracic outlet syndrome. Occasionally, pain in the collarbone area could be a sign of something more serious, like an infection in the bone (osteomyelitis) or an infection around the heart (pericarditis).
Collarbone pain could also radiate to the shoulder, causing pain in both the collarbone and shoulder area, especially if the pain is caused by an injury like a fall. You may also feel worsening collarbone pain with breathing. This happens because as you take in a deep breath, your chest expands, which can cause movement of your collarbone. Severe collarbone pain should be checked by a doctor as soon as possible. Pain that lasts more than a day or two should also be evaluated.
Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if the collarbone itself has moved or looks misshapen, or if pain is accompanied by other symptoms, such as swelling, inability to move your arm, difficulty breathing, chest pain or tightness, abdominal pain, or fever. This could be a medical emergency. Left untreated, if the collarbone pain is caused by a fracture, this could result in permanent deformity or even a life-threatening infection if the bone has pierced the skin. If the pain is caused by a heart attack, it could be fatal.
What other symptoms might occur with collarbone pain?
Collarbone pain may not be the only symptom if you injured the area or if you have a condition that may cause pain.
Collarbone pain symptoms that may occur with a fracture or dislocation
Aside from pain, if you have broken or dislocated your collarbone, you may experience:
- Difficulty moving or lifting the arm on the same side as the collarbone pain
- Grinding sound if you try to move your shoulder
- Obvious deformation or bulging around the collarbone or near your shoulder
Serious or life-threatening symptoms related to collarbone pain
Other medical conditions that do not directly affect the collarbone or shoulder can still cause pain. In some cases, the pain, along with other symptoms, might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:
- Abdominal pain, especially if it is the left collarbone or shoulder that hurts
- Chest pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Tender upper left abdomen
What causes collarbone pain?
The most common cause of collarbone pain is injury. This could be through falling and landing on an outstretched arm or a direct blow to the area, as in a car accident or in contact sports. Newborns can be born with a broken collarbone. This is called a birth injury as it usually occurs while the baby passes through the birth canal.
Other causes of collarbone pain
Collarbone pain can also be caused by:
- Osteoarthritis: Osteoarthritis is often called the wear-and-tear arthritis. It occurs as the joints start to break down and there is less cushioning between bones as they move.
- Osteomyelitis: An infection in the bone, perhaps from a break or a systemic (body-wide) infection, can cause collarbone pain.
- Sleeping: Sleeping on your side can put pressure on your collarbone.
- Thoracic outlet syndrome: This syndrome occurs when the nerves around the shoulder and collarbone are compressed, pressing on the nerves.
Serious or life-threatening causes of collarbone pain
In some cases, collarbone pain may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting.
- Heart attacks: Heart attack symptoms can include pain that radiates from the chest up to the shoulder, usually on the left side.
- Ruptured spleen: A ruptured spleen causes bleeding in the abdomen. As the bleeding occurs, it can cause pain in the abdomen but also pain in the left breast and shoulder area.
When should you see a doctor for collarbone pain?
Collarbone pain is not often serious and may resolve with at-home treatment, but any pain that lasts more than a few days should be evaluated.
See a doctor promptly if:
- The pain is severe and the result of a fall or injury.
- You become lightheaded or nauseous, as this could be a sign of a break.
- You have a fever.
Call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room for collarbone pain if:
- The collarbone has broken through your skin.
- The collarbone appears misshapen, bumpy, or moved out of place.
- You experience shortness of breath, chest pain, or chest tightening.
- You experience abdominal pain, especially in the upper left area of the abdomen.
How do doctors diagnose the cause of collarbone pain?
To determine why you have collarbone pain, your doctor will need to review your medical history and do a physical examination of the area. In addition, your doctor will ask you several questions including:
- How long has the area been painful?
- Did you fall or experience a blow to the area?
- Are you experiencing any other symptoms, such as weakness in your arm, chest pain, dizziness, or shortness of breath?
- When does the pain occur? Is the pain constant or intermittent?
- Is the pain worsened or relieved by moving your arm or breathing?
- Can you move your arm above your head?
After the physical examination, your doctor could suggest you have an X-ray of the collarbone area, or other imaging tests, like ultrasound or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). If your doctor suspects there is a problem other than injury to the bone, you may also undergo other tests, including:
- Blood tests
- Electrocardiogram (EKG)
It is not always possible to diagnose an underlying cause or condition. If the problem persists and your provider is unable to determine a cause, seeking a second opinion may give you more information and answers.
How is collarbone pain treated?
If your collarbone pain is caused by muscle pain or your sleeping position, it should go away on its own. Treatments for other causes vary.
Broken collarbone treatment
Your collarbone must be immobilized with a special sling so you cannot move your arm. If the fracture is severe, you may need surgery.
Your doctor may recommend over-the-counter pain relievers; but if the pain is severe, you may be given a prescription strength pain reliever to use for the first few days of healing.
Rehabilitation, including physical therapy, will help relieve stiffness and increase your strength and flexibility as you recover.
Thoracic outlet syndrome treatment
Thoracic outlet syndrome occurs when the nerves around the shoulder and collarbone become compressed, putting pressure on the nerves. Treatments for thoracic outlet syndrome include:
- Brace to stabilize the shoulder
- Losing weight, if needed
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
If collarbone pain is caused by an infection, such as osteomyelitis (an infection in the bone), treatment will focus on eliminating the infection. Treatments for infections affecting the collarbone include:
- Brace to stabilize the shoulder
- Surgical procedure to drain pus or fluid
What are some at-home remedies for collarbone pain?
If your collarbone pain is not severe and you do not have any other symptoms, you may be able to manage it at home. Home remedies for collarbone pain include the RICE approach:
- Rest. Avoid using your arm and shoulder too much.
- Ice. Apply ice to the painful area for 20 minutes at a time. Do not put the ice directly on your skin; wrap it in a cloth.
- Compression. This can be done by wrapping the shoulder area to keep your shoulder immobile.
- Elevation. Sleep with your head slightly elevated so your shoulder area is higher than the rest of your body.
What are the potential complications of collarbone pain?
In rare cases, collarbone pain can be due to serious undiagnosed conditions. Not getting a diagnosis and treatment could result in serious complications. Once the underlying cause is found, it is important to follow the treatment plan you and your healthcare professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:
- Death due to heart attack or ruptured spleen
- Permanent disability if a collarbone fracture doesn’t heal properly
- Sepsis due to infection