Arm Pain

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Woman holding her right arm due to pain

Arm pain can take on many forms and be accompanied by widely differing symptoms since it can be a result of problems in the wrist, elbow, shoulder or even elsewhere in the body. If the cause of the pain actually resides somewhere other than the arm, the pain is known as “referred” pain.

The causes of arm pain include serious life threatening conditions such as a heart attack as well as relatively benign conditions such as tennis elbow. It is therefore important to recognise when the symptoms may imply a serious problem in order that you can take prompt action.

In addition to being accompanied by different types of symptoms, the pain may start without warning and immediately be severe. Heart attack pain usually starts in this way. In other cases, it may come and go in the initial stages of the problem, and increase gradually. A good example of this  might be pain due to carpal tunnel syndrome.

In this article, we will consider the main reasons why your arm may be painful. For each possible reason, we will discuss the nature of the likely accompanying symptoms. We will also provide some summary advice about the next steps you should take to deal with the problem. Of course, in all stages, we suggest you follow your doctor’s advice whenever possible.

Diagnosing The Cause

The first step to treating your arm pain should be to consult a doctor for diagnosis and medical advice.

An accurate diagnosis will usually require the doctor to review your medical history and perform a physical examination of the painful arm. As part of the physical exam, you may be asked to perform simple tasks with your arm, such as lifting your arm. While performing the tasks, you may be asked to say how these affect the pain

Your doctor will also discuss your symptoms in detail, asking when they occur and what makes them worse.

Depending on the information gleaned from the above steps, your doctor may request some or all of the following:

  • Blood tests – will help to detect the presence of problems like diabetes or high levels of inflammation due to arthritis;
  • X rays can help to detect bone damage or fractures;
  • Tests of heart function will help the doctor determine whether a heart problem may be behind the arm pain;
  • Ultrasound imaging will also provide clues as to damage to ligaments, tendons, or muscles;
  • MRIs or CT scans can provide even more detailed information about the condition of bones or soft tissues in the arm.

Arm Pain – Possible Causes, Symptoms & Remedies

Pinched Nerve(s)

One of the common reasons for a painful arm is a pinched nerve, either in the arm or shoulder or in the upper back. A pinched nerve in your upper back due to spinal stenosis or a herniated disc can cause referred pain in your arm.


If you have a pinched nerve, you may also experience numbness or weakness as well as tingling sensations in your arm. These may be at the same site as the arm pain, or they may occur elsewhere.


To treat a pinched nerve, your doctor will probably initially recommend physical therapy exercises together with pain relief medication. He or she may also suggest modifying your activity levels to reduce the pain.

If the pain is due to spinal stenosis or a herniated disc, your doctor may then suggest corticosteroid injections near the spine. The goal will  to reduce inflammation of the nerve roots and ease the pressure on them.

Finally, your doctor may suggest surgery to correct the problem.

Soft Tissue Injuries

These can be any of 3 types of injury – sprains/strains, tendonitis or a rotator cuff injury.

Sprains & Strains

These are injuries due to overstretching or other danage to ligaments, muscles and tendons of the lower or upper arm Some typical examples might be strained bicep muscles or sprained elbow or wrist ligaments..


This is caused by irritation and then inflammation of the tendons connecting muscles to adjacent bones.It may occur in your shoulder, elbow or wrist. Tennis elbow is probably the most common example of tendonitis that leads to arm pain.

Rotator Cuff Injury

This is actually a form of tendonitis that can attack the tendons of the rotator cuff that surrounds the arm/shoulder joint.

Symptoms Of A Soft Tissue Injury

With a sprain / strain, you may hear or sense a popping or snapping sound at the time of the injury.

Along with the pain you feel in the injured area, you may also experience swelling and lost joint strength or range of motion and joint instability. Depending on the severity of the injury, there may also be bruising over the strained or sprained joint or muscle.Muscle spasms may also be present if you have severely strained a muscle.

The symptoms of tendonitis are similar to those of a sprain/strain except that there will be no joint weakness or instability. Instead, you will likely experience a dull aching pain as well as swelling and tenderness.


Typical treatment for sprains and strains is to rest the damaged structure. Your doctor may also suggest the remaining components of the R.I.C.E. protocol, namely icing, compression and elevation of the injured area. Pain relief medication or anti inflammatory drugs may also be recommended.

Additional protection of injured ligaments, muscles or tendons may be achieved by way of an orthopedic brace or athletic tape.

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

This is a condition caused by the inability of the median nerve of the wrist to move freely within the carpal tunnel on the inside of the wrist.


Together with chronic pain around the inner wrist, you will usually experience wrist stiffness and difficulty when trying to open your fingers. The pain and difficulty may be especially pronounced after awakening in the morning.


Your doctor may recommend pain relief medication to ease your discomfort along with physical therapy exercises to reduce wrist stiffness. A wrist splint can be worn at night to keep your wrists in a neutral position.

If these conservative approaches fail, your doctor may suggest surgery to crrect the problem.

Arm Fracture

This injury will usually cause an immediate severe pain in your arm. You will likely also hear a snap as the bone breaks. In addition, you will probably notice that your arm has an unusual shape or that the damaged bone is protruding through your skin. You will also experience swelling and bruising, likely severe.


If you think you have fractured your arm, this should be treated as an emergency. Go to the nearest hospital emergency department for treatment. Doctors may have to perform surgery to repair bone damage and restore the bones to their correct positions.

You will then have to wear a cast to ensure the bones heal in the correct position. After removing the cast, you may need to participate in a physical therapy exercise program to restore full arm function.


Arthritis is another common cause of arm pain, particularly in the shoulder, elbow or wrist joints. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a particularly painful and serious cause of pain. It is an auto immune condition caused by your immune system mistaking your joint lining for a foreign entity. It then starts to attack and destroy the joint lining. The lining is intended to lubricate the joint and keep it moving freely. As a result , rheumatoid arthritis results in gradual joint stiffening and pain when

you attempt to move the joint. You may also suffer from warmth and tenderness of the joints as well as swelling.


Treatment options for RA usually focus on slowing the rate of progression and maintaining as much joint function as possible.Pain relief medication, activity modification and a range of specially designed medications are available for this purpose. Your doctor will prescribe a treatment plan best suited for your situation.


Angina is caused by a lack of sufficient oxygen getting to the heart. In addition to left arm pain, you will feel pain in your chest as well as pressure in the chest, back and neck. Other symptoms are nauseau, shortness of breath and dizziness.


Angina is frequently a sign of an underlying heart problem. You should seek an appointment with your doctor for further diagnosis and testing.

Heart Attack

This is the most serious and life threatening condition that can cause arm pain.It is the result of a lack of sufficient blood flow to the heart. The result can be the death of portions of your heart muscle.

Symptoms can include pain in either or both arms, pain elsewhere in your chest or upper body, nausea and shortness of breath. You may also experience cold sweats and dizziness.


Heart attacks are life threatening events and should be treated as medical emergencies of the highest order. You should call 911 immediately and keep calm while waiting for an ambulance.

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