A 67-year-old female was referred for two weeks of left shoulder pain that kept her from sleeping and moving her arm and interfered with her job as a typist. The pain was located in the posterior shoulder just medial to the scapula, radiated down her left arm, and was positional. She had not noticed a decreased range of motion.
After failure of steroids and NSAIDs, she was referred to a chiropractor, who did not improve her shoulder pain. When she got up from the table, she noticed that she was having crushing chest pain bilaterally on each side of the sternum at the level of the first and second ribs. Since then, she had been on significant doses of opiates and oral steroids without pain resolution.
A shoulder exam revealed bilateral normal range of motion with no crepitus. The patient’s head was slightly tilted, her back laterally rotated. There was a palpable tender mass over the medial aspect of her left scapula. Palpation of the rhomboid muscle caused intense acute pain that radiated down her arm and reproduced her symptoms (See sample photos 1 & 2).
Etiology: A rhomboid muscle strain or spasm is usually caused by overuse of the shoulder and arm, especially during repetitive overhead activities like serving a tennis ball or reaching to put objects on a high shelf. It can also result from activities such as the prolonged use of a computer, the problem experienced by this patient.
Anatomy: The rhomboids originate on the last (seventh) cervical and first five thoracic vertebrae and insert on the medial border of the scapula. They work with the levator scapulae and the upper trapezius to elevate and retract the scapula. Spasms of the rhomboids refer pain to a local and limited area, as well as down the lateral aspect of the arm, and are often accompanied by trigger points in levator scapulae, trapezius, and pectoralis major and minor. (See photos 3a, 3b, and 4).
Rhomboid spasm should be treated by local lidocaine injection and a depot corticosteroid into the rhomboid muscle. The lidocaine provides the direct effect of reducing the current spasm, and the anti-inflammatory effect of the steroid reduces recurrence.
To administer a rhomboid injection, first locate the rhomboid muscle just medial to the scapula on the posterior shoulder. A rhomboid muscle in spasm often presents as a painful, palpable mass. Next, identify an area of point tenderness. Inject lidocaine and a corticosteroid. The correct location will be confirmed by immediate pain relief; the steroid, however, may take up to a week to provide pain relief.