Arm pain can be caused by a wide variety of problems, including conditions that affect your skin, joints, nerves, muscles, veins, or heart. A person with arm pain may experience soreness, itching, numbness, swelling, or discomfort in the arm.
Arm pain is typically due to an injury, irritation, or inflammation affecting structures in the arm (or possibly your neck or upper spine). Everyday activities — including typing, writing, working with tools, playing sports, lifting heavy objects, and exercising — can cause arm pain.
Arm pain, usually on the left side, accompanied by tightening of the chest, nausea, and difficulty breathing, can be a symptom of coronary artery disease or even a heart attack, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Signs and Symptoms of Arm Pain
Arm pain can be mild to severe and exists in many different forms, from a shooting or stabbing pain to one that’s more of a dull ache. It can develop suddenly or gradually and may be accompanied by other symptoms, depending on the underlying condition, per the Mayo Clinic.
Symptoms that may occur with arm pain include:
- Redness or bruising
- Limited range of motion
- Swollen lymph glands under the arm
Carpal tunnel syndrome — a common condition caused by repetitive movements in the hands, wrists, or fingers — can lead to tingling, numbness, or weakness in your arms, palms, and fingers, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis) — a common condition caused by repetitive movements in the arms, elbows, and especially the wrists — can lead to pain and weakness in the elbow joint and forearm, along with tenderness on the outside of the elbow, per the Mayo Clinic and Michigan Medicine.
Frozen shoulder (adhesive capsulitis) — a less common condition that tends to affect adults ages 40 to 60 — causes pain and limited range of motion when connective tissue around the shoulder joint becomes thickened and inflamed, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Deep vein thrombosis of the upper extremity, which is when a blood clot forms in a deep vein of the arm, can cause swelling, extreme pain, and arm fatigue, per the American College of Cardiology.
Causes and Risk Factors of Arm Pain
Arm pain can develop due to numerous health conditions, including the following, per the Mayo Clinic.
- Brachial plexus injury
- Broken arm
- Broken wrist or broken hand
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Cervical (neck) disk herniation
- De Quervain’s tenosynovitis
- Deep vein thrombosis of an upper extremity
- Dislocated elbow
- Pinched nerve (nerve compression)
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Rotator cuff injury
- Sprains and strains
- Tennis elbow
- Thoracic outlet syndrome
Certain factors are known to increase the risk of developing arm pain from a repetitive stress injury or pinched nerve. Those factors can include:
Sex Women have smaller carpal tunnels and are therefore at a higher risk of developing carpal tunnel syndrome.
Thyroid Problems Thyroid disorders also increase the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome, for reasons that aren’t fully clear.
Diabetes Nerve damage related to diabetes may raise the risk of nerve compression.
Obesity A greater body weight can put more pressure on nerves, increasing the risk of compression.
Pregnancy Weight gain associated with pregnancy can also put extra pressure on nerves.
Overuse Any action related to a job or hobby that involves repetitive hand, wrist, or shoulder movement increases the risk of repetitive stress injuries, including tendinitis, or a pinched nerve, according to the Mayo Clinic.
How Is Arm Pain Diagnosed?
Since arm pain can be a symptom of many different disorders, it’s important to get an accurate diagnosis if your pain is persistent or causes you distress.
To diagnose a condition that causes arm pain, your doctor will ask detailed questions about your symptoms and activities and perform a physical exam. If needed, your doctor will order imaging tests that may include the following, per the Mayo Clinic:
Magnetic Resonance Imaging This test uses a magnetic field and radio waves to create detailed images of areas of your body.
Ultrasound This test uses sound waves to produce images of structures in your body, and it can be useful for diagnosing compression syndromes such as carpal tunnel.
Nerve Conduction Study This procedure measures nerve impulses when a small amount of electrical current is applied to an area of the body, to detect damaged nerves.
Electromyography This test involves inserting a needle electrode into muscles to measure their electrical activity, which can help detect damage to nerves leading to muscles.
Prognosis of Arm Pain
How severe your arm pain is, how long it lasts, and whether it’s likely to resolve on its own or require some form of treatment depends on the underlying condition.
Certain forms of arm pain may resolve on their own, especially if you don’t regularly engage in the activity that led to your injury. In other cases, you may need to refrain from or modify a repetitive activity to allow the recovery to take place. You may also need to do physical or occupational therapy.
Sometimes arm pain due to pinched nerves may not resolve on its own or with less invasive treatments, in which case it may require surgery, per the Mayo Clinic.
Duration of Arm Pain
Arm pain may last for just a few days, or for as long as months or years, depending on the condition that is causing it and its severity. The pain may be constant, or it may come and go.
If your pain lasts for longer than a few days and interferes with your daily activities, it’s a good idea to see a doctor for treatment advice and to investigate the cause.
Treatment and Medication Options for Arm Pain
For many forms of arm pain, self-care and over-the-counter treatments are enough to effectively resolve the pain.
If you have arm pain from overexertion or a compressed nerve, avoid repetitive movements and take frequent breaks from activities that stress the area.
If your arm pain is due to overuse or overexertion, for short-term management the Mayo Clinic advises you to use the RICE technique, which stands for:
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 Elevate your arm above heart level to help reduce swelling.
When to See a Doctor
Seek emergency treatment if your arm, shoulder, elbow, or wrist pain is the result of severe trauma or comes on suddenly. If you have trouble moving your arm or see protruding bones, see your doctor right away, or go to the nearest emergency room.
Sudden arm, shoulder, chest, or back pain, accompanied by pressure in your chest, may signal a heart attack, and you should call 911 and seek emergency treatment immediately. Do not drive yourself to the hospital if you think you are having a heart attack.
See your doctor as soon as possible if you have:
- Pain that occurs with exertion and is relieved by rest (which may indicate reduced blood flow to your heart)
- Sudden injury
- Severe pain and swelling
- Difficulty moving or rotating your arm
The Mayo Clinic recommends that you schedule a regular office visit with your doctor if you have arm pain that isn’t getting better with self-care, or if you have an injury and notice an increase in redness, swelling, or pain.
Common over-the-counter medications to help relieve arm pain include acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs), such as aspirin or ibuprofen.
Depending on the source of your arm pain, your doctor may administer drug treatments, such as an injection of corticosteroids, to help relieve inflammation.
Your doctor may also prescribe a topical anti-inflammatory drug that you apply to the skin in the area of your pain, notes the Mayo Clinic.
Some conditions that cause arm pain, including many chronic tendon conditions, may benefit from physical therapy.
A physical therapist can work with you to identify activities or other factors that may be contributing to your condition, as well as recommend specific exercises to help you strengthen and stretch the affected muscles and tendons.
One category of exercises that often helps with tendon problems is known as eccentric strengthening, per the Mayo Clinic. This practice involves contracting (squeezing) a muscle at the same time that it is lengthening.
A physical therapist can also help you regain range of motion and avoid scarring after surgery has been done to repair a fracture or treat carpal tunnel syndrome, according to the Mayo Clinic.
While it’s typically not a first-line treatment, surgery may be the best option if other treatments don’t effectively relieve your arm pain.
People with carpal tunnel syndrome may benefit from surgery that relieves pressure on the median nerve by cutting the ligament that presses against it.
Tendinitis may benefit from surgical or nonsurgical procedures, including minimally invasive ones designed to stimulate healing or remove scar tissue, as well as direct surgical repair of a tendon injury, per the Mayo Clinic.
In some cases, surgery is needed to stabilize an arm or wrist fracture, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Alternative and Complementary Therapies
If your arm pain is related to osteoarthritis, it’s possible that taking a turmeric (curcumin) supplement may help you manage your condition, along with routine care. In fact, some studies have shown that turmeric supplements, in the right dose, are similar in effectiveness to certain NSAID drugs for that purpose, according to Harvard Health.
Other alternative therapies that may help with arm pain, per MedlinePlus, include:
- Relaxation training
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, some approaches that have varying degrees of supporting evidence for the treatment of osteoarthritis are:
- Tai chi and qi gong
- Massage therapy
- Supplements like glucosamine and chondroitin
Other complementary therapies exist for specific arm conditions like carpal tunnel. Talk to your healthcare provider about which ones might work best for you.
Prevention of Arm Pain
Not all forms of arm pain can be prevented, but some of the most common conditions that cause arm pain are related to straining or overuse.
The following steps may help you prevent some of the most common forms of arm pain, per the Mayo Clinic.
Reduce your force. If you’re typing or operating a cash register, don’t hit the keys too hard.
Relax your grip. Don’t grasp a pen, handle, or anything else harder than needed to accomplish the task at hand.
Take breaks. Even short breaks from repetitive tasks can help you avoid injury, especially if you use these moments to stretch and bend your hands and wrists.
Watch your form and posture. Don’t bend your wrists too far in either direction, and don’t hunch your shoulders forward when doing tasks.
Optimize your computer mouse. Make sure your hand reaches your mouse at an angle that is comfortable. You might need to experiment with different positions and products to achieve this.
Stay warm. Keep your hands warm when doing tasks, and wear gloves if needed.
Mix up your exercise. Don’t do the same kinds of exercises over and over, day after day. A varied exercise routine is less likely to cause injury.
Stretch after exercise. Work to increase your range of motion once your muscles are warmed up.
Complications of Arm Pain
Aches and pains in your arm, shoulder, or wrist can make it difficult to write, type, talk on the phone, or go about your daily activities.
If left undiagnosed and untreated, some types of injuries and inflammation may lead to serious tissue damage that requires surgery or other extensive treatment.
To reduce the risk of serious damage, the Mayo Clinic recommends taking a break from any activities that cause arm pain — and administering any treatment or self-care that is recommended by your doctor.
Research and Statistics: How Many People Have Arm Pain?
Since arm pain can have so many different causes, there isn’t much data available on how common it is overall. But there are some indicators that it’s quite common.
In a study published in BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, participants at a university in the Netherlands reported nontraumatic pain symptoms over a yearlong period. During that time, 30.3 percent reported shoulder pain, and 17.5 percent reported wrist or hand pain.
In another study, published in Spine, researchers found that in a survey of the general population ages 21 to 64 in Stockholm County, Sweden, the reported rate of neck, shoulder, and arm pain between 1990 and 2006 rose from 22.8 percent to 25.0 percent among women, and from 12.8 percent to 15.4 percent among men.
It’s estimated that carpal tunnel syndrome affects between 2.7 percent and 5.8 percent of the general adult population, according to an article published in American Family Physician.
Conditions Related to Arm Pain
Some of the most common conditions associated with arm pain include the following:
Bursitis Small fluid-filled sacs (bursae) that cushion tissues near your joints can become inflamed due to repetitive movements, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome This condition is caused by compression of your median nerve, which runs through your wrist and arm. Symptoms can include weakness, numbness, and tingling in these areas.
Tendinitis Tendons around your shoulders, elbows, or wrists can become irritated or inflamed due to repetitive movements.
Rheumatoid Arthritis This inflammatory joint disease tends to affect smaller joints first, such as those in your fingers, before larger ones like in your wrists, elbows, or shoulders, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Resources We Love
The following organizations provide information and support for people experiencing arm pain and related disorders:
American Association of Neuromuscular and Electrodiagnostic Medicine
This medical association is dedicated to advancing the treatment of neuromuscular and musculoskeletal conditions. Its website contains information on numerous disorders, including carpal tunnel syndrome and ulnar neuropathy.
American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
This group, representing surgeons who specialize in the musculoskeletal system, provides information on specific disorders affecting the shoulders, elbows, hands, and wrists — including fractures, tendon injuries, and different types of arthritis.
American Society for Surgery of the Hand
This organization of hand surgeons gives an overview of many different conditions on its website, including fractures, sprains, and nerve injuries, along with symptoms like numbness and wrist pain.
This leading arthritis research and advocacy organization provides information on joint conditions affecting the hands and arms, and it also has detailed resources on managing pain.
Additional reporting by Quinn Phillips.