What is arm pain?
Arm pain is any type of pain or discomfort in the arm, which is considered the area from the shoulder joint to the wrist joint. Your arms are made up of bones, joints, muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves and blood vessels, all of which are subject to injury, infection, or other conditions that can be painful.
Arm pain may last briefly or be constant, and it may affect your entire arm or only a particular area. Your pain may feel achy, piercing or tingly. Pain-like sensations, often described as pins and needles, prickling, or burning are called paresthesia. Arm pain may be simply irritating and uncomfortable, or it can be so debilitating that you cannot move your arm.
Arm pain can arise from a variety of conditions ranging from accidental trauma to nerve conditions. Arm pain can also originate in another part of the body such as the neck. This type of pain is called referred arm pain.
Referred arm pain can be due to a heart attack. Pain radiating to the left arm is a hallmark symptom of a heart attack and may occur with the feeling of pressure or squeezing pain in the center of the chest, nausea, vomiting, sweating, irregular heart rate, and difficulty breathing. Seek emergency medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have pain in your left arm along with any of these other symptoms.
If you do not have these symptoms, but your arm pain is persistent, recurrent, or causes you concern, seek prompt medical care.
What other symptoms might occur with arm pain?
Other symptoms may occur with arm pain. Symptoms vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. For example, if you have a fever, your arm pain may be due to infection or inflammation. Arm pain due to arthritis may occur with joint stiffness and reduced range of motion.
Symptoms that might occur along with arm pain
Symptoms that may occur with arm pain include:
Back, neck or shoulder pain
Burning feeling in the arm
Reduced elbow movement
Skin discoloration, such as bruising
Unexpected weight loss
Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition
In some cases, arm pain may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have arm pain with other serious symptoms including:
Bluish coloration of the lips or fingernails
Change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out or unresponsiveness
Chest pain radiating to the left arm, shoulder, neck or jaw
High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)
Inability to use your arm
Popping or cracking sound at time of arm injury
Red streaks around a tender sore or lump
Weakness (loss of strength)
What causes arm pain?
Typically arm pain is due to overuse, injury, or age-related wear and tear on the muscles, bones, joints, tendons and ligaments of the arm. Usually these conditions are not serious and you can prevent and treat overuse and minor injuries with self-care and lifestyle changes. For example, proper rest in between periods of exertion and abstaining from extreme sports without proper conditioning are two practical methods of avoiding trauma to the arm.
However, infectious diseases, as well as degenerative and neurological conditions, can also affect the arm. Pain that extends into the left arm can even be caused by a heart attack.
Injury-related causes of arm pain
Arm pain may arise from various injuries including:
Broken bone or stress fracture
Growth plate fracture
Laceration or contusion
Neck, shoulder or arm injury
Pulled or torn muscle
Sprains and strains
Infection-related causes of arm pain
Arm pain may arise from various infections including:
Cellulitis (bacterial skin infection)
Infected wound or other sore
Osteomyelitis (bone infection)
Septic arthritis (infectious arthritis)
Degenerative, inflammatory and neurological-related causes of arm pain
Arm pain can be caused by degenerative, inflammatory and neurological conditions including:
Bursitis (inflammation of a bursa sac that cushions a joint)
Cervical spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal with compression of the spinal cord and nerves in the neck)
Herniated disc in the neck
Nerve entrapment or compression, such as may affect the ulnar nerve in the arm
Peripheral neuropathy, such as diabetic neuropathy
Rheumatoid arthritis (chronic autoimmune disease characterized by joint inflammation)
Other causes of arm pain
Arm pain can be due to other conditions including:
Bone tumor (malignant or benign)
Complex regional pain syndrome (often triggered by trauma or nerve damage)
Questions for diagnosing the cause of arm pain
To diagnose the underlying cause of your arm pain, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your symptoms. Questions for diagnosing the cause of arm pain include:
When did the pain start?
Did the pain develop slowly or suddenly?
Is the pain constant or intermittent?
Has there been any swelling?
Do you have any other symptoms?
Are you taking any prescribed or over-the-counter medications or supplements?
What are the potential complications of arm pain?
Complications associated with arm pain can be progressive and can vary depending on the underlying cause. Mild arm pain due to overuse usually responds to rest, ice, and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications. Because arm pain can be due to a serious disease, failure to seek treatment can result in complications and permanent damage. It is important to contact your health care provider when you experience any kind of persistent pain or other unusual symptoms. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, following the treatment plan you and your doctor design specifically for you can lower your risk of potential complications including:
Inability to perform daily living tasks
Loss of limb (amputation)
Loss of strength
Permanent nerve damage
Spread of infection