When to See a Doctor for Arm Pain
We probably don’t appreciate our arms until they hurt or we can’t use one. Because we use our arms so much and often with repetition or force, it’s not surprising for arm pain to appear, sometimes out of nowhere. However, arm pain, particularly left arm pain, could be a sign of something serious. For example, you may feel arm pain with a heart attack.
But how do you know what type of arm pain is serious, when you should see a doctor, or if your arm pain can be managed at home? And if you should see a doctor, is it an emergency or can it wait a while?
Some arm pain is annoying but it doesn’t keep you from participating in your activities. Other pain can have a significant impact on how you move, work, and play. Here are some of the more common causes of arm pain:
Dislocated elbow or shoulder
Fractures of the humerus in the upper arm, the radius or ulna in the forearm, or the elbow, wrist or hand bones
Torn or strained muscles including the biceps, triceps, deltoids, and forearm muscles
Serious causes of arm pain not related to musculoskeletal problems include:
If you or someone you are with is experiencing arm pain with other signs of heart attack, such as chest pain or tightness, shortness of breath, weakness, or fatigue, call 911 for immediate medical help.
Unless there is an injury that obviously needs a doctor’s care, such as a fracture, some arm pain can be managed at home. Pain caused by repetitive use of your arm, such as repeated bending or flexing, will often ease if the activity is stopped. However, the longer you continue the activity, the worse the pain can be and the worse the damage may be to the bone, joint or soft tissue—muscles, ligaments, tendons and bursa.
The most common home care recommendations for arm pain injuries like muscle pulls, tendinitis, and minor-to-moderate joint injuries include the RICE approach:
Rest. Reduce your activity, taking a break from the repetitive motions that may have caused your pain.
Ice. Apply ice to your elbow or shoulder for about 20 minutes a few times a day. Do not apply the ice to bare skin.
Compression. Wrap or support the injured part of the arm.
Elevation. Elevate your arm to a level above your heart.
You can add warm packs to the RICE method to promote healing, but wait 48 hours after the initial injury, after swelling subsides, or after a doctor clears you for applying heat. Alternating ice with warm packs, each for 15 to 20 minutes, can be an effective injury treatment.
If the weight of your arm pulls down on your elbow or shoulder and increases the pain, a sling may be helpful. However, don’t use a sling for too long without consulting your doctor.
If you can take over-the-counter pain relievers and anti-inflammatories, these may help as well.
There are three levels of care if you hurt your arm or you have unexplained arm pain: emergency, as quickly as possible, and when you can make an appointment.
The most serious problem that could cause arm pain is related to your heart. This is a medical emergency. If you have sudden arm pain, particularly down your left arm, and you also have back pain, nausea, shortness of breath, chest pain, or pressure in your chest, these are possible signs of a heart attack. Call 911 and tell the operator you may be having a heart attack.
This type of arm pain may also be a sign of angina, which is caused by reduced blood flow to the heart. Angina is not a heart attack, but it is a sign something is wrong with your heart and it could lead to a heart attack. There is only one way to verify if your pain is related to a heart attack or angina, and that is to see a doctor. Do not drive yourself to the hospital if you believe you may be having a heart attack or angina.
Other causes of arm pain may not be as serious, but still may need emergency care. These include:
Obvious deformity of your arm, including your shoulder or elbow (possible dislocation)
A bone has broken through the skin after a fall or direct blow
A serious cut or gaping wound
Signs of an infected wound, including redness around the area, discharge from the wound, increasing pain, or fever
Lost sensation in your arm or hand
Severe pain in your arm
Difficulty moving or turning your arm (palm of your hand face up or face down)
Difficulty moving your fingers or hand
Loss of pulse, limb coolness or discoloration compared to the other arm
Delaying treatment could cause permanent damage to your arm.
Prompt, or Same-Day Care
If you have arm pain but no obvious injury that needs emergency care, you should see your doctor as soon as possible if the pain is severe, you have trouble moving and using your arm, or the sensation to your arm, hand or fingers is abnormal.
Scheduled Medical Care
Finally, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor if:
You have arm pain that is not going away, despite resting it and refraining from the activities that may have caused the pain
The pain is present even if you are not using your arm
The type of pain changes, for example from an ache to a sharp pain
The pain returns when you resume activities, such as reaching up or lifting something heavy
There is new swelling or a lump near or on your arm
If you go to an emergency room, the emergency physician or triage nurse will decide if you can be treated in the emergency room or if you need to see a specialist.
If your arm pain is related to your heart, you may be referred to a cardiologist or vascular surgeon. Otherwise, the other specialists who frequently deal with arm pain are orthopedic specialists or orthopedic surgeons. If the pain is caused by nerve damage, you may also be referred to a neurologist or neurosurgeon for treatment to reduce the risk of permanent damage in your arm.
Primary care physicians may be able to treat most arm pain that is not urgent, but your doctor may recommend more specialized care. Here are some specialists who can treat arm pain and injuries:
Orthopedic specialist or orthopedic surgeon—These specialists diagnose and treat problems of the musculoskeletal system, including joints, bones, tendons, muscles and nerves. Consider seeing a doctor who specializes in the upper extremity.
Rheumatologist—A rheumatologist treats diseases and conditions of the musculoskeletal system and chronic autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis. If a patient needs surgery on a joint like the shoulder, the rheumatologist would refer the patient to an orthopedic surgeon.
Physical medicine or rehabilitation specialist. These specialists work with patients who have orthopedic injuries and need rehabilitation.
Sports medicine physician. Sports medicine doctors can also diagnose and treat arm injuries from playing sports, exercising, or repetitive stress.
Physical therapist. Physical therapists are healthcare professionals whose role is to help you regain your strength and range of motion in your arm as it heals.
Athletic trainer. An athletic trainer works with clients who have acute or chronic injuries and helps them through the rehabilitation process.
It’s important for a doctor or other healthcare professional to evaluate arm pain and possible causes. Even if the pain seems harmless, pain is your body’s way of telling you something is wrong. So, if you have arm pain, visit your doctor for an accurate diagnosis and ask about treatment options.