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 of the arm, or possibly your neck or upper spine. Everyday activities — including typing, writing, working with tools, playing sports, lifting heavy objects, or exercising — can cause arm pain.
Causes and Risk Factors of Arm Pain
- 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 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 repetitive stress injuries and pinched nerves. These factors include:
Being a Woman Women have smaller carpal tunnels, and are therefore at a higher risk for 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.
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:
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) 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 can be useful to diagnose compression syndromes like carpal tunnel syndrome.
Nerve Conduction Study This procedure measures nerve impulses when a small amount of electrical current is applied, to detect damaged nerves.
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 an activity that led to your injury. In other cases, you may need to refrain from or modify a repetitive activity to allow recovery to take place. You may need to do physical or occupational therapy.
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.
For arm pain due to overuse or overexertion, remember the acronym RICE:
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.
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 (this may indicate reduced blood flow to your heart)
- Sudden injury
- Severe pain and swelling
- Difficulty moving or rotating your arm
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 to help relieve inflammation, such as an injection of corticosteroids.
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, and develop specific exercises to help you strengthen and stretch the affected muscles and tendons.
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.
Carpal tunnel syndrome may benefit from surgery that relieves pressure on your median nerve by cutting the ligament that presses against it.
Alternative and Complementary Therapies
- Relaxation training
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.
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.
Stay warm. Keep your hands warm when doing tasks, and wear gloves if needed.
Mix up your exercise. Don’t do the same kind of exercise 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.
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.
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 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 also has detailed resources on managing pain.
Additional reporting by Quinn Phillips.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
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