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Arm pain


Definition

Arm pain can have many different causes. These may include wear and tear, overuse, injury, a pinched nerve, and certain health conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia. Depending on the cause, arm pain can start suddenly or develop over time.

Arm pain may be related to problems with the muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments and nerves. It also may be related to problems with the joints of the shoulders, elbows and wrists. Often arm pain is caused by a problem in your neck or upper spine. Arm pain, especially pain that radiates into your left arm, can be a symptom of a heart attack.

Causes

Possible causes of arm pain include:

  • Angina (reduced blood flow to the heart)
  • Brachial plexus injury
  • Broken arm
  • Broken wrist
  • Bursitis (A condition in which small sacs that cushion the bones, tendons and muscles near joints become inflamed.)
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Cellulitis
  • Cervical disk herniation
  • Deep vein thrombosis (DVT)
  • De Quervain tenosynovitis
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Heart attack
  • Osteoarthritis (the most common type of arthritis)
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Rotator cuff injury
  • Shingles
  • Shoulder impingement syndrome
  • Sprains (Stretching or tearing of a tissue band called a ligament, which connects two bones together in a joint.)
  • Tendinitis (A condition that happens when swelling called inflammation affects a tendon.)
  • Tennis elbow
  • Thoracic outlet syndrome
  • Ulnar nerve entrapment

When to see a doctor

Call for medical help right away or go to the emergency room if you have:

  • Arm, shoulder or back pain that comes on suddenly, is severe, or occurs with pressure, fullness or squeezing in your chest. This may be a symptom of a heart attack.
  • An unusual angle to your arm, shoulder or wrist or if you can see bone, especially if you have bleeding or other injuries.

See your health care provider as soon as possible if you have:

  • Arm, shoulder or back pain that occurs with any sort of activity and gets better with rest. This may be a symptom of heart disease or reduced blood flow to your heart muscle.
  • A sudden injury to your arm, especially if you hear a snap or cracking sound.
  • Severe pain and swelling in your arm.
  • Trouble moving your arm as you usually can or trouble turning your arm from palm up to palm down and back again.

Make an appointment with your health care provider if you have:

  • Arm pain that doesn't improve after home care.
  • Worsening redness, swelling or pain in the injured area.

Self-care

For some severe arm injuries, you may begin with home care until you can get to medical care. If you think that you have a broken arm or wrist, splint the area in the position it's found to help hold your arm still. Put ice on the area.

If you have a compressed nerve, a strain injury or an injury from a repetitive activity, consistently follow any treatments recommended by your health care provider. These may include physical therapy, avoiding certain activities or doing exercises. They also may include having good posture and using a brace or support wrap. You may try taking frequent breaks at work and during repetitive activities, such as playing an instrument or practicing your golf swing.

Most other types of arm pain may get better on their own, especially if you start R.I.C.E. measures soon after your injury.

  • Rest. Take a break from your usual activities. Then begin mild use and stretching as recommended by your health care provider.
  • Ice. Place an ice pack or bag of frozen peas on the sore area for 15 to 20 minutes three times a day.
  • Compression. Use a stretchable bandage or wrap around the area to lessen swelling and provide support.
  • Elevation. If possible, raise your arm to help lessen swelling.

Try pain relievers you can buy without a prescription. Products you put on your skin, such as creams, patches and gels, may help. Some examples are products that include menthol, lidocaine or diclofenac sodium (Voltaren Arthritis Pain). You also can try oral pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) or naproxen sodium (Aleve).

Content Last Updated: 27-Apr-2023
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