Arm pain can be caused by a wide variety of problems, ranging from joint injuries to compressed nerves. Depending on the cause, arm pain can start suddenly or develop over time.
In many cases, arm pain actually originates from a problem in your neck or upper spine. Arm pain, particularly pain that radiates into your left arm, can even be a sign of a heart attack.
Possible causes of arm pain include:
- Angina (reduced blood flow to the heart)
- Brachial plexus injury
- Broken arm
- Broken wrist
- Bursitis (joint inflammation)
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Cervical disk herniation
- De Quervain’s tenosynovitis
- Dislocated elbow
- Heart attack
- Rheumatoid arthritis (inflammatory joint disease)
- Rotator cuff injury
- Tennis elbow
- Thoracic outlet syndrome
- Ulnar nerve entrapment
When to see a doctor
Seek emergency treatment if you have:
- Arm, shoulder or back pain that comes on suddenly, is unusually severe, or is accompanied by pressure, fullness or squeezing in your chest (this may signal a heart attack)
- An obvious deformity or protruding bone in your arm or wrist, especially if you have bleeding or other injuries
See your doctor right away if you have:
- Arm, shoulder or back pain that occurs with any sort of exertion and is relieved by rest — possibly signaling heart disease or chest discomfort caused by reduced blood flow to your heart muscle (angina)
- A sudden injury to your arm, particularly if you hear a snap or cracking sound
- Severe pain and swelling in your arm
- Trouble moving your arm normally or turning your arm from palm up to palm down and vice versa
Schedule an office visit if you have:
- Arm pain that doesn’t improve after home care
- Increasing redness, swelling or pain in the injured area
Even serious arm injuries can be helped initially with home treatment. If you think that you have a broken arm or wrist, apply ice packs to the affected area and use a sling to help hold your arm still until you can get medical care.
If you have a compressed nerve or repetitive strain injury, be consistent about therapy; maintain good posture; and take frequent breaks at work and during repetitive activities, such as playing an instrument or practicing your golf swing.
Most other types of arm pain will get better on their own, especially if you start R.I.C.E. measures soon after your injury.
- Rest. Take a break from your normal activities.
- 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 compression bandage to reduce swelling.
- Elevation. If possible, elevate your arm to help reduce swelling.