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Arm pain: causes, symptoms and treatment

Updated: December 2018

Pain in the arms is very common — the term “arm pain” can refer to many things, including pain in the shoulders, elbows, or wrists. However, most of the time, when we talk about arm pain, we mean the part of the arm between the elbow and the shoulder. Arm pain can have various causes (it can come from muscles, joints or tendons, for example), which will determine how the pain should be treated. This is why it’s important to talk to a doctor if you have persistent arm pain.

Causes of arm pain

Arm pain most commonly occurs after an injury or fall, but it can also have various other causes. The pain could come from the arm itself or could just as likely indicate a problem somewhere other than the arm.

If the pain does come from the arm itself, it may be caused by simple muscle or tendon fatigue, overexertion, or repeated and prolonged use of the arms (for example, at work or when exercising). It could also be due to tendinitis, bruising from an impact injury, a sprain or a fracture. Bone tumours can also cause arm pain, as can conditions such as arthritis that affect the joints.

The cause of the pain may also be somewhere other than the arm itself. For example, a painful arm could also be a sign of a slipped disc, a spinal cord tumour, or osteoarthritis in the spine. Arm pain can also be radiated pain from the heart or lungs. In particular, a pain in the left arm can be a sign of a heart attack or angina. For this reason, it is important to take any sudden pain in the left arm very seriously, and consult a doctor without delay.

Symptoms of arm pain

Arm pain can manifest itself in a number of ways:

  • A short, sharp pain that occurs during a specific movement
  • A radiating or shooting pain
  • An intense pain resulting from injury
  • Pain accompanied by swelling or a change in the shape of your arm
  • Pain that worsens when you use your arm
  • A feeling like an electric shock or burning, or pins and needles that do not get worse when you move your arm
  • A pain that comes on suddenly on exertion, spreads down the left arm and does not ease off when resting (in which case it could be a heart attack — consult a medical expert immediately)

In all cases, if these symptoms are accompanied by faintness, breathlessness, and shoulder, chest or jaw pain, call emergency services and ask for an ambulance. You should also call for an ambulance if you heard a snapping sound and the pain is severe and/or your movement is very restricted.

Diagnosing arm pain

Arm pain should be treated according to its cause. However, given the many possible causes, your doctor will first have to work out whether the pain is linked to the arm itself, or whether it is a symptom of another problem elsewhere in your body.

Most of the time, the doctor will start with a clinical examination, but other information about you such as your job, activities and previous injuries, in addition to the location of the pain and the symptoms associated with it, can help the doctor to make a diagnosis. The doctor may send you for a scan in order to confirm the diagnosis, and if they think that the pain is coming from somewhere other than the arm, some more advanced tests may be needed.

Advice and solutions

Once the doctor has made a diagnosis, they can start treating your arm pain. If the pain is due to a fall or strain injury, and fractures have been ruled out, your doctor will prescribe rest for your arm, and possibly pain killers. If the pain is caused by tendinitis, the doctor will prescribe rest for your arm along with anti-inflammatory drugs and physiotherapy. If any bones have been fractured or displaced, your arm will need to be immobilised and placed in a cast, probably followed by a course of physiotherapy. If your pain is due to a heart problem, you will need to be admitted to hospital as an emergency.

There are also some precautions you can take in order to prevent or limit the pain in your everyday life. Many arm injuries and pains can be avoided by warming up and stretching before and after exertion, and if your work requires repetitive arm movements, taking frequent breaks will reduce your risk of injury. If you have severe pain from an injury, apply ice wrapped in a cloth or towel to the source of the pain for 10 to 15 minutes.

There are also other solutions for reducing certain types of arm pain, drug-free. This is where OMRON’s range of pain relievers come in: they use Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) to help you to relieve your muscle and joint pain.


References:

PassportSanté (2015). Arm pain. Retrieved from www.passeportsante.net/fr/Maux/Symptomes/Fiche.aspx?doc=douleurs-bras-symptomein.