Types of Heart Attack Symptoms: Arm Pain

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Man outdoors holding shoulder in pain
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You may be surprised to learn that heart attacks don’t always cause chest pain. Arm pain and heart attack can go hand-in-hand. Arm pain is a common ailment, so how can you tell if your arm pain is due to a heart attack or something far less serious, like a muscle strain?

Why are arm pain and heart attack connected?

Most often a heart attack occurs when a blood clot obstructs blood flow into your heart muscle (myocardial infarction). This commonly causes a cramping or squeezing pain in the center or right side of your chest. Heart attack symptoms are extremely variable, but sometimes the pain in your chest extends to one or both shoulders and arms.

In addition to shoulder and arm pain, you may also have pain, aching or discomfort in other areas of your upper body, such as your neck, jaw or back, without any chest pain. This happens more commonly in women than in men.

What else could cause my arm pain?

When your arm aches or is painful, it is most often due to a condition that is not as serious as a heart attack. Common causes of arm pain include:

  • Arm or shoulder muscle stress or strain due to over exercising and activities, such as sleeping in an awkward position

  • Broken arm bone (fracture) due to an injury

  • Bursitis, inflammation of a bursa sac that cushions a joint

  • Fibromyalgia, a disorder that causes long-term tender spots and muscle pain in the shoulders and other areas of the body

  • Injury to the neck or shoulder, which can cause pain to spread down the arm

  • Osteoarthritis, wear and tear of the joints in the arm and shoulder

  • Tendinitis, irritation of a tendon from strain or overuse such as in tennis elbow

When should I call my doctor or 911?

Contact your doctor if you have long-term arm pain or discomfort. Call 911 if your arm pain is severe or sudden or occurs with any of these symptoms:

  • Feeling as if something terrible is going to happen or having an unexplained sense of dread or uneasiness

  • Any type of chest discomfort, such as pain, pressure, or squeezing, even if it is mild

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Pain or discomfort in your shoulders, arms, back, neck or jaw

  • Shortness of breath or feeling like you can’t take a full breath

  • Passing out or feeling dizzy or woozy

  • Looking “white as a sheet”. Your skin may also be sweaty, cold and clammy.

  • Fatigue or weakness

It may seem extreme to call an ambulance for arm pain, but don’t hesitate to call 911 with any of the above symptoms. It is better to call 911 for minor arm problem than ignore a possible heart attack. This is because every second counts in a heart attack, and any delay in treatment increases your risk of having fatal or serious heart damage. As a precaution, all emergency personnel will treat you as if you are having a heart attack until all your tests are complete.

Don’t second-guess the cause of your arm pain—call 911. It might save your heart and your life.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Apr 26
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

  1. Hand/Wrist/Arm Problems. FamilyDoctor.org. http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/health-tools/search-by-symptom/hand-wrist-arm-problems.html)

  2. JAMA Patient Page: Myocardial Infarction. http://jama.ama-assn.org/content/299/4/476.full.pdf

  3. What is Fibromyalgia? The American Fibromyalgia Syndrome Association, Inc. http://www.afsafund.org/fibromyalgia.html

  4. Heart Attack. American Heart Association. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/HeartAttack/Heart-Attack_UCM_001092_SubHomePage.jsp

  5. What is a Heart Attack? National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/HeartAttack/HeartAttack_WhatIs.html