Arm pain

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at December 9, 2015
StartSymptomsArm pain

Arm pain has many possible causes. Sometimes, the source of the pain has nothing to do with the arm itself, but it can signal a problem far worse. Getting diagnosis and treatment for it is important, and it may help avert a more serious problem.


Definition & Facts

Many people experience some form of arm pain, often along with hand pain. Sometimes it is also associated with neck and shoulder pain.

In a study of computer workers by the National Institute of Health (U.S.) at five companies, many had pain in the arm, and others had pain in the shoulder and neck. Of the 26 percent reporting the pain, 36 percent of them had pain in the arm, shoulder and neck.

Eleven percent of these people reported that it affected their daily performance. In many cases, the pain was not severe enough for employees to stay home. The National Institute of Health also reports that as many as 13 to 20 percent of the people in the European Union reported upper limb and shoulder pain, which decreased their effectiveness as employees.


There are many possible causes of arm pain, some visible and some invisible. This article will focus on the invisible (no wounds) type that seem to be without any explanation for it. Some explanations for arm pain could be:

Arm pain can also be caused by being overused. This can easily occur as a result of sports, hobbies, certain types of work, or from a fall.

Along with arm pain, there may be a wide variety of symptoms. This would include a dull or sharp pain, swelling of the arm, stiffness, tenderness, being numb, tingling, weakness, redness, and possibly swollen lymph glands under the arm. The pain may also be in one or both arms, and it could be anywhere along the length of the arm, or it could extend from the fingertips to the shoulder. It may also have started recently, or it may have been present for years.

One more possible source of the pain could be that of a heart attack or stroke. Oftentimes, the first symptoms that might be felt is pain in the left arm.

A compression of nerves in the neck can also cause pain in the arm. This occurs because the nerves go from the spinal cord down the arm. A disc can become damaged or out of place and this can put pressure on the nerves. The spinal column can also become narrowed (Spinal stenosis), putting pressure on the nerves (pinched nerve).

When to see a doctor

Pain in the arm may be just more than an inconvenience. It may also indicate a more serious problem that a doctor needs to look at right away, or if it persists. In most cases, a detailed analysis would need to be made by a doctor in order to fully understand the problem. This may involve an X-ray, a CT scan.

There are occasions when the doctor should be contacted right away. A doctor should be seen quickly when there are symptoms of:

  • Severe pain
  • a lot of swelling
  • the hand or arm changes color
  • the arm cannot be used
  • red streaks running up the arm
  • a fever is present
  • the arm is tingling, weak, or numb.
  • arm pain interferes with normal work or daily activities

The presence of certain other symptoms means that a doctor should be seen immediately. This is especially true if there is a history of heart attacks or stroke. These symptoms may indicate a very serious condition:

Treatment & Therapy

Once the exact cause of the pain is determined (if possible), treatment for it will be started. In some cases, multiple tests may need to be performed before a precise diagnosis can be given.

If the cause of the pain is believed to be overexertion of the arm, then rest will most likely be prescribed, possibly along with some non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication. The resting of the arm will need to continue until the pain subsides. Then gradually start using the arm again until it gets stronger. Other forms of treatment for lesser problems may include:

In some cases, surgery may also be necessary, as in the case of carpal tunnel and other problems. An infection will probably be treated with antibiotics.

Pain in the shoulder or arm that increases with exertion but is somewhat relieved by rest, needs to be seen by a doctor. This could be a sign of heart disease or angina pectoris.

If the problem is caused by pressure being put on the nerves in the neck or spine, surgery may be needed to correct it. It can repair disc problems, or fuse disks together, eliminating the pressure. If the normal space in the spinal column becomes narrower and applies pressure to the nerves, a small piece of bone may need to be removed from the spinal column to create more space, called a discectomy.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Pain in the upper arm may be directly associated with a particular health problem, such as with a heart attack or stroke. At other times, it can often be prevented.

Computer users can also take some preventive steps to reduce arm pain. Steven Sauter, who is a specialist in job-stress at the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health says that only rest will help relieve stress in the wrist and hands. Brief breaks are also necessary. Take a one-minute break about every 15 minutes. Sit straight, too, with feet flat on the floor. It is also a good idea to stretch the fingers backward, and use a light touch on the keys.

If the arm pain is caused by angina pectoris, heart attack, stroke, or coronary artery disease, there are several things that can be done to help prevent a recurrence. These steps also apply to other health issues in general, too. The steps are:

  • stop smoking
  • avoid alcohol
  • lose excess weight
  • eat healthy
  • exercise regularly
  • take medications as required.

If arm pain has continued for more than six weeks, it is time to visit a doctor.

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