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Collarbone Pain and RA: What It Feels Like and Tips for Managing

Medically reviewed by Diane M. Horowitz, M.D.
Written by Megan Cawley
Posted on June 28, 2022

For people living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), joint pain can be a common aspect of day-to-day life. Pain in the shoulder, upper arm, and collarbone can limit a person’s range of motion and affect their ability to perform daily activities.

Several myRAteam members have shared their experiences with collarbone pain. “I have pain below my collarbone,” wrote one member. “If I raise my arms or stretch them, it hurts.”

Another member shared, “My collarbone was sore yesterday and this morning. I have swelling in that area.”

In this article, we will explore collarbone pain in RA, including what causes it and how it can be managed.

What Causes Collarbone Pain in RA?

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease. It is triggered when the immune system attacks healthy tissues in the body. The resulting inflammation causes pain and swelling, particularly in the joints.

More than half of all people with rheumatoid arthritis experience shoulder pain because of their condition. RA may affect either of the two joints in the shoulder: the acromioclavicular joint and the glenohumeral joint.

The acromioclavicular, or AC joint, is found where the clavicle (collarbone) meets the tip of the shoulder blade. The glenohumeral joint is located where the head of the humerus (upper arm bone) fits into the shoulder blade. RA is equally common in both joints, causing pain in the shoulders and/or the collarbone.

This image shows the bones and joints in the shoulder. RA can affect the glenohumeral or acromioclavicular joints, which may result in pain in the shoulder and/or the collarbone. (Adobe Stock)

Other Possible Causes of Collarbone Pain

Several other conditions or factors may cause pain in the collarbone, including:

  • Strain or injury — This may include a broken collarbone, a clavicle fracture, or other bone or ligament injuries.
  • Osteoarthritis — This is the most common form of arthritis. It occurs when regular wear and tear erodes the cartilage cushioning the bones. Osteoarthritis may also lead to bone spurs.
  • Bursitis — This refers to inflammation of the sacs that cushion the joints (bursae).
  • Thoracic outlet syndrome — This occurs when the nerves or blood vessels between the collarbone and first rib are compressed.
  • Infection of the AC joint

One myRAteam member mentioned that their collarbone pain was due to their sleeping position. “I have had collarbone pain that was the result of my pillow and placement of the pillow. This may not be your problem, but it was mine,” they said.

What Collarbone Pain in RA Feels Like

Members of myRAteam have described pain in the collarbone in several different ways. It might feel like the usual RA joint pain you experience in other parts of the body, or it might present with different sensations like burning or throbbing. “I’ve got a throbbing pain under my armpit and across my collarbones,” said a myRAteam member.

One member noted a popping sensation in their shoulder joint, saying, “Has anyone had pain in their collarbone close to your neck? My day started out with this pain and the joint pops when I move.”

Pain in the collarbone might also affect your ability to do usual activities that require lifting or moving the arms. “I have been having neck and collarbone pain! It’s so bad that it hurts to hug my grandson,” said one member. Another member commented, “I’m having difficulty lifting my arm or reaching.”

Managing Collarbone Pain With RA

Talk to your rheumatologist or health care provider if you are experiencing collarbone pain. They can do a physical exam, help determine the cause of your pain, and work with you to find the best way of treating and managing it.

If you have already been diagnosed with RA, your doctor may request X-ray, MRI, or CT scans of the shoulder joints and collarbone area. These tests can help determine whether your collarbone pain is caused by RA or if there are other potential causes of your pain or discomfort, such as an injury.

Medications

There are several treatment options for collarbone pain caused by RA joint inflammation. Your doctor may prescribe disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) in order to slow the progression of your RA and prevent joint deformity. This can help prevent existing pain from getting worse due to increased inflammation or joint erosion.

Over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), including acetaminophen (Tylenol), naproxen sodium (Aleve), and ibuprofen, can temporarily relieve joint pain. So can certain gels, patches, or topical creams containing pain-relieving ingredients like capsaicin or lidocaine.

For persistent pain, a doctor might suggest injecting corticosteroids or an anesthetic into an inflamed section of the nerve. These shots may provide near-immediate relief that can last for weeks or months.

Physical Activity

It may seem counterintuitive to exercise when you’re in pain. As one myRAteam user put it, “I hear a lot about exercising, but how do you exercise with pain and stiffness all over your body?”

Those living with RA joint pain can actually benefit from mild daily activity and physical therapy. Exercise not only helps improve range of motion but can also decrease joint stiffness by keeping joints strong, loose, and stretched — which can help prevent further damage and joint pain.

Heat and Cold Therapy

Many myRAteam members use hot or cold therapy for pain relief, and this method might help with collarbone or shoulder pain. “Ice packs do help with my excruciating, ongoing pain,” wrote one member. Another said that they only take Tylenol and use ice packs when the pain is too much for them to handle.

Some prefer one method over the other. One member said, “I don’t use heat on my joints as it makes them worse,” while another wrote, “Honestly, ice packs seem to help me more than heating pads.”

One member who prefers heat wrote that they recommend using a hot water bottle or heat pack to reduce joint pain. Another user even expressed issues with using cold treatments: “My heating pad helps me. Ice packs make my joints hurt.”

Occupational and Physical Therapy

For collarbone pain, you may want to try occupational or physical therapy. Occupational therapy teaches you how to perform daily activities without straining your joints. Physical therapy helps you strengthen your muscles and extend your range of motion. Physical therapy, exercise, and increased movement in general can help reduce pain and delay the onset of disability in people with RA.

Find Your Team

Are you or a loved one living with rheumatoid arthritis? Consider joining myRAteam today. Here, over 192,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with RA.

Do you experience collarbone pain as one of your RA symptoms? How do you manage it? Share your story or thoughts in the comments below or by posting on myRAteam.

Posted on June 28, 2022
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Diane M. Horowitz, M.D. is an internal medicine and rheumatology specialist. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about her here.
Megan Cawley is a writer at MyHealthTeam. She has written previously on health news and topics, including new preventative treatment programs. Learn more about her here.

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