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You use your arms for just about everything, such as lifting, holding, grabbing, and throwing. Pain in any part of your arms can debilitate you by preventing you from carrying out your daily activities on your own.
Arms are part of the upper extremities of the body. These are built of a network of bones, muscles, joints, nerves, blood vessels, and tendons. The arms extend from the shoulder joint to the joint located on your wrists. Pain in the arm can be engendered by an injury, infection, or other conditions. (1)
Causes of Arm Pain
Depending on the cause, the pain may start suddenly and go away or it may increase gradually.
Mild pain in the arms is usually the result of:
- Poor sleeping position
- Poor blood circulation
- Exercising or playing sports
- Repetitive motion of the arm
Some possible causes of severe arm pain include:
- A pinched nerve such as in carpal tunnel syndrome
- Shoulder injuries such as rotator cuff tear, shoulder instability, or other problems
- Skeletal muscle injury
- Broken bone
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Heart attack
- Elbow and wrist injuries
Symptoms of Arm Pain
The symptoms can be in one or both arms and can affect the wrist, elbow, and shoulder. Aside from pain, other symptoms associated with arm problems include:
- Stiffness in the joints
- Difficulty moving the arm
- Swollen lymph nodes under the arm
- A temperature above normal, shivering, broken skin around the shoulder in the case of weakness, burning, and tingling
Arm Pain As a Symptom of Angina
Angina occurs when the arteries supplying blood to the heart muscles become constricted. This can result in a reduced supply of blood to the heart.
Angina is manifested as pain in the chest that is steadily spread to the neck, left arm, and back. However, at times angina may be reflected merely as perpetual pain in the arm. This calls for a medical review.
Standard Treatment for Arm Pain
Arm pain can be resolved conventionally by tending to the cause of the pain. Your doctor will recommend you the following based on his diagnosis:
- Medications to relieve the pain and inflammation
- Arm exercises that aim to strengthen the broken arms or joints under the supervision of or as advised by a physiotherapist
- Taping your arm using a sling
- Using RICE therapy to treat your arm pain (2)
RICE stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation.
- Rest: Let your arm rest for a minimum period of 36 hours. Give it some time to heal, and avoid lifting heavy weights or objects. This will help your inflamed tissues to heal.
- Ice: Ice will help relieve the pain and swelling around the injured area. Use a soft cloth to cover the skin before placing an ice compress to prevent frostbites.
- Compression: Use an elastic bandage to tape the affected region of the arm. This will help relieve the pain. However, do not compress the painful region too tightly.
- Elevation: Rest the affected arm on a pillow to drain away the excess fluid collecting at the injured site.
Surgery may be recommended if problems and the pain persist despite conservative management.
Possible Complications Related to Arm Pain
Mild arm pain responds well to the conventional RICE therapy and painkillers. However, it is necessary to seek medical attention if you experience arm pain for several weeks. This persistent pain may entail a risk of complications or permanent damage in severe cases.
Some of the complications include:
- Permanent damage to the nerve
- Loss of the arm as a result of surgical amputation
- Extended periods of pain
- Loss of strength in the arms
- A spread of infection to other organs
- Inability to do simple tasks in daily life that involve the use of the affected limb
When to See a Doctor
If the symptoms do not improve or if you are prone to recurring bouts of arm pain, see your doctor or physiotherapist. Other conditions that warrant medical consultation include the following:
- The pain persists for several weeks without any sign of improvement.
- The swelling, pain, or redness has increased.
- You experience a tingling or numbness in the affected area.
- You experience arm pain after an exercise session that passes away with rest.
- You develop a fever and inflammation over a short time duration. This may happen if there is an infection in the arm.
- You hear a snapping noise from an injured arm.
- You experience persistent weakness, night pain, and swelling.
Caution: See a doctor immediately if the pain is severe.
Expert Answers (Q&A)
Answered by Dr. Daniel Zanotti, MD (Orthopedic Surgeon)
Arm pain can be caused by many things, such as muscle or tendon injuries, joint problems (such as arthritis), nerve issues (carpel tunnel syndrome), neck problems, and even heart attack. Fortunately, most causes of arm pain are related to the musculoskeletal system and can be diagnosed and treated relatively easily.
Pinched nerves either in the cervical spine (neck) or down the arm (carpel tunnel, cubital tunnel) can lead to arm pain. Typically with a pinched nerve, the patient experiences numbness and tingling more than pain, but pain can also be a major symptom.
Depending on the severity, pinched nerves usually respond to medicines, physical therapy, and non-operative treatments. Occasionally, a pinched nerve from a herniated disc or entrapped nerve needs to be surgically addressed.
Hand tendonitis occurs when the muscles and tendons in the hand become inflamed. It can start in the elbow and radiate toward the fingers. Pain, while grasping or lifting objects, is a common complaint.
Tendonitis pain follows the path of the individual tendon that is affected. Again, therapy, bracing, medicine, and injections are often helpful. Hand tendonitis rarely requires surgical intervention, but surgery can be helpful in refractory cases.
Stress and anxiety are being investigated as causes for more and more problems. Oftentimes, excessive stress can lead to muscle tightness, especially in the neck. Tension headaches are common from neck tightness.
Muscle tightness can lead to spasms and pain down into the arm. Sitting at a computer all day is a common cause of stress and muscle tension in the neck, and can lead to neck and arm pain.
Cervical spondylosis refers to the general deterioration of the discs and joints in your neck. This worsens with age, leading to bone spur formation and disc bulging. Both of these can cause the nerves that exit the spine to be pinched or tightened.
When the nerve gets pinched, patients feel pain and numbness/tingling in the arm. Therapy is often a successful treatment, but if the nerve pinching becomes severe it can require surgical intervention.
Arm pain can be caused by many things, such as muscle or tendon injuries, joint problems (such as arthritis), nerve issues (carpel tunnel syndrome), neck problems, and even heart attack.
Fortunately, most causes of arm pain are related to the musculoskeletal system and can be diagnosed and treated relatively easily.