Why Is My Collarbone Popping?

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Many people experience a popping sensation in their collarbone when moving one or both arms. This may occasionally happen when reaching in certain directions, or it can occur every time you move your arm and shoulder. But why does your collarbone make a popping noise or click when you move your arm, and what can be done about it?

a woman holding her collar bone

Gregg Bucken-Knapp / Getty Images

Causes

Understanding the anatomy of your shoulder is the first step in understanding the cause of collarbone popping. Your shoulder complex is made up of three bones and several joints.

The bones of your shoulder complex include:

These three bones interact together to allow you to move your arms freely when reaching for things. A problem with one or more of these bones may lead to collarbone popping.

There are several joints in your shoulder. These may also be a source of collarbone popping. Joints of the shoulder include:

  • The sternoclavicular (SC) joint: This joint is the articulation between your collarbone and your sternum (breastbone). Motions here include elevation, depression, and slight rolling.
  • The acromioclavicular (AC) joint: The AC joint is the articulation between your collarbone and the acromion process of your scapula.
  • The glenohumeral (GH) joint: The GH joint is a ball and socket joint composed of your humerus and the glenoid fossa or your scapula. This joint is known as your true shoulder joint, and it is the area where the bulk of shoulder motion comes from.
  • The scapulothoracic joint: Your shoulder blade is attached to areas of your thoracic spine via several muscles. While this is not a true joint, it does serve as an attachment point for your scapula to your trunk, and motion does occur here.

These four joints attach your shoulder bones to your trunk and allow for movement to occur in your arms and shoulders.

When you lift your arm, muscles around your shoulder contract and pull the bones in specific directions. This causes the joints of your shoulder to glide and slide, and this gliding and sliding may cause a popping sensation in your collarbone.

Collarbone popping usually occurs at your SC joint or your AC joint. Causes of collarbone popping may include:

  • SC joint separation
  • AC joint separation
  • Osteoarthritis of the SC or AC joint

Sometimes, collarbone popping is caused by an unstable joint caused by trauma. Other times, the instability of your shoulder joints is caused by wear and tear or degenerative conditions such as arthritis.

Besides trauma and arthritis, collarbone popping can occur without any particular cause in someone who has general ligament laxity or hypermobile joints. This most commonly occurs in younger patients and women. These patients may notice laxity in their GH or SC joints.

A separation of your SC joint may cause one collarbone to push forward, and you may see it stick out a bit from your breastbone. This may cause abnormal motion around that joint and lead to popping and pain when you move your arm.

If you are experiencing collarbone or shoulder popping when you move your arms, you may benefit from visiting your healthcare provider. They can perform tests to diagnose the cause of your collarbone popping.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

If your collarbone popping is caused by trauma, you should see your healthcare provider right away to rule out a fracture or acute dislocation. If the popping is accompanied by severe loss of shoulder motion or function, a visit to the healthcare provider may be necessary.

The SC joint can be affected by infection, and both the AC and SC joints can be affected by inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis. The infection or swelling can lead to instability of the joint.

If the joint popping is associated with swelling, redness, severe pain, warmth, or fever, then you should see a healthcare provider urgently.

Diagnosis

When visiting a healthcare professional for collarbone popping, several tests may be done to determine the cause. First, they will perform a clinical examination. Components of the exam may include:

  • Palpation: Your healthcare provider will use their hands to touch your bones, joints, and muscles to feel for any abnormalities and to appreciate the popping that occurs as you move.
  • Range of motion (ROM) measurement: Measures of ROM may give your healthcare provider an idea if a tight joint capsule or tight muscles may be a cause of your problem.
  • Strength measurements: Manual muscle testing may be done to look for weak shoulder muscles that may cause shoulder popping.
  • Shoulder special tests: Special tests are done to determine if a muscle or ligament tear is present that may be causing your collarbone popping. The SC joint and AC joint compression tests are commonly performed to assess the integrity of those joints.

After the clinical exam, your healthcare provider may order diagnostic tests for your popping collarbone. These tests may include:

The results of your clinical examination combined with the results of diagnostic studies should give you an idea of the cause of your popping collarbone. Then, you can begin treatment for your condition.

Treatment

Treatment for collarbone popping depends on the cause of the problem. For example, if tight muscles or tissues are pulling abnormally on your SC or AC joints, this may cause popping, and treatment may focus on stretching tight structures.

A weakness of the shoulder muscles may also cause popping. If this is the case, strengthening your shoulder may be the best treatment for you. Working closely with a physical therapist is a good idea; they can ensure you are properly performing the right exercises for your condition.

Stretches for your shoulder may include:

These stretches gently move your SC, GH, and AC joints, pulling slightly on tight tissues around them. This may restore normal gliding and sliding of your joints and alleviate collarbone popping.

Strengthening exercises for your shoulder may include:

The overall exercise goal for your popping collarbone is to restore normal ROM and strength, and regain normal and proper motion around your shoulder joints.

If trauma is causing your collarbone to pop, you may benefit from a short period of immobilization to protect your shoulder joints. A sling may be worn for a few weeks.

A condition called frozen shoulder might occur if you wear a sling for too long. This condition, hallmarked by a severe and painful loss of shoulder ROM, may be avoided if gentle pendulum exercises are done periodically while using the sling.

Surgery

If any of the joints have been acutely dislocated due to a trauma, particularly the SC and GH joints, they will need to be urgently relocated in the emergency department or by an orthopedic surgeon.

If a torn ligament in the AC or SC joint is causing your collarbone popping, surgery may be performed to correct the problem. Surgery for non-painful collarbone popping is rare. Usually, it is reserved for traumatic and painful cases of SC or AC joint popping.

Surgery may involve using a small wire to tie your SC or AC joint together, joining the bones properly. During the surgery, your healthcare provider may “clean out” the joint, removing bone spurs and small bits of cartilage.

After surgery, you will likely wear a sling for several weeks while things are healing, and you may benefit from a course of rehab to regain ROM, strength, and normal functional use of your arm.

Coping

Keep in mind that some episodes of collarbone popping are short-lived, while others are permanent. If your collarbone popping is causing pain and limited function in your arm, you should definitely visit your healthcare provider to get the proper treatment.

Regaining normal pain-free motion in your shoulder and SC or AC joints would be the goal. Most people feel a bit better about their condition once they have started on the right treatment.

Sometimes, sternoclavicular joint or collarbone popping is not painful and does not limit function; it is just a mere nuisance. In these cases, you may have to find activities that limit the popping in your collarbone or learn to live with the popping noises coming from your shoulders.

As long as you can function fully and painlessly, you should be able to use your arms normally, albeit with a bit of noise coming from the joints.

A Word From Verywell

Collarbone popping when you move your arms may be a severe problem that causes pain and limited mobility, or it may be a simple nuisance when you are reaching for things. A visit to your healthcare provider can help determine the cause of your problem.

Often, collarbone popping is caused by instability or arthritis changes in your SC or AC joints. If your collarbone pops and is painful, improving shoulder movements and strength can be an effective strategy for getting relief.

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