What Causes Arm Pain?

Medically Reviewed By Angela M. Bell, MD, FACP
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Arm pain is any type of discomfort in the arm area, which runs from the shoulder to the wrist. Your arms consist of muscles, joints, bones, ligaments, tendons, blood vessels, and nerves. These components can be subject to injuries, infections, or other painful conditions. Arm pain may be brief or constant, and it may affect your entire arm or only a particular area. Arm pain can also occur secondarily to pain in another part of the body, such as the neck. This type of pain is known as referred arm pain. 

Read on to learn more about possible causes of arm pain and how to treat them.

Injuries

A figure with a broken arm
French Anderson Ltd/Stocksy United

Arm pain may arise from various injuries, including:

  • a broken bone or fracture
  • a dislocated elbow
  • laceration
  • bruising
  • a strained or torn muscle

Treatments

Some minor arm injuries, such as strains or bruising, will resolve with at-home treatments, including adequate rest, ice, and over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications. More serious injuries, such as a dislocated elbow or a fracture, may require medical interventions, including physical therapy or surgery.

Infections

Arm pain can also be the result of various infections, including:

  • cellulitis, which is a bacterial skin infection that can also cause redness and swelling
  • osteomyelitis, which is an acute or chronic bone infection
  • septic arthritis, which is a form of arthritis resulting from an infection

Treatments

Doctors will typically treat infections with antibiotics. Severe cases of osteomyelitis may require surgical draining and cleaning of the infected area or a bone graft. Septic arthritis treatment may also involve joint drainage.

Degenerative conditions

Certain degenerative conditions may cause arm pain. Cervical spondylosis, for example, occurs when the discs in your spine begin to wear down, resulting in pain that can radiate to your arms. It is a very common condition in people over the age of 60 years.

Osteoarthritis is another degenerative condition that can cause arm pain. It occurs when the cartilage around your joints wears down, causing pain and stiffness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis. It can affect any joint, such as the shoulder, elbow, or wrist.

Treatments

Treatment for degenerative conditions often involves medications and physical therapy. Surgery may be necessary if other treatments are ineffective or if you are experiencing severe complications.

Inflammatory conditions

Conditions that cause inflammation can affect the arm and cause pain. These may include:

  • bursitis, or inflammation of the fluid filled sacs that cushion your joints
  • rheumatoid arthritis, which is a chronic autoimmune condition that causes joint inflammation
  • tendinitis, or inflammation of a tendon

Treatments

Some inflammatory conditions arise due to repetitive motions or overuse. In these cases, you may need to avoid the activity or motion that caused the condition. You may also be able to treat mild inflammatory conditions at home with rest, ice, OTC pain medications, and gentle stretches and exercises.

More serious inflammatory conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, will need medical treatment. Your doctor may prescribe medications to help slow the progression of the condition and prevent severe joint damage.

Nerve conditions

Arm pain can result from several conditions that affect your nerves, including:

Treatments

Treatment for nerve conditions can involve medications and physical therapy. Your doctor may also recommend wearing immobilization devices to help prevent further nerve damage while you are undergoing treatment. For example, people with carpal tunnel syndrome may need to wear a brace to keep their wrists in a neutral position.

If initial treatments are ineffective, your doctor may recommend surgery.

Heart attack

Pain that radiates to one or both arms is a common symptom of a heart attack. It may occur with a feeling of pressure or a squeezing pain in the center of the chest.

Seek emergency medical care (call 911) if you have pain in one or both arms along with any of these other symptoms:

Treatments

In the short term, treatment for a heart attack can involve medications and surgical procedures. You may also need to make certain changes to your lifestyle or diet to prevent future heart attacks.

Other causes

Some other causes of arm pain may include:

  • Bone tumors: Both malignant and benign bone tumors can cause arm pain or discomfort. Malignant bone tumors may require surgical removal, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy. In some cases, doctors may decide to monitor a benign bone tumor. In other cases, they may remove it or treat it with medications.
  • Complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS): People with an arm injury may experience pain that is disproportionate to the injury. Although most cases of CRPS resolve on their own, some people may require extensive physical therapy, medications, and other medical procedures.
  • Vaccinations: Many vaccinations can cause general arm pain or pain at the injection site. OTC pain medications and gentle arm movements may help relieve the pain.

What other symptoms might occur with arm pain?

Other symptoms may occur with arm pain and can vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder, or condition. These symptoms can include:

What are some potential complications of arm pain?

Because arm pain can result from serious conditions, not seeking treatment may lead to complications or permanent damage. It is important to seek medical treatment when you experience persistent pain or other unusual symptoms.

Once your doctor has diagnosed the underlying cause, following their treatment plan can lower your risk of potential complications, including:

  • arm disability
  • chronic pain
  • amputation
  • a loss of strength
  • permanent nerve damage
  • the spread of infection

When should you contact your doctor about arm pain?

If you are experiencing persistent or recurring arm pain, contact your doctor to rule out any serious injuries or underlying conditions. In some cases, arm pain may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious or life threatening condition that requires immediate evaluation in an emergency setting.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you have arm pain with other serious symptoms, including:

  • arm deformity
  • bluish coloration of the lips or fingernails
  • a change in your level of consciousness or alertness
  • confusion
  • a fever higher than 101ºF (38.3ºC)
  • an inability to use your arm
  • a popping or cracking sound at the time of an arm injury
  • red or discolored streaks around a tender sore or lump
  • respiratory or breathing problems
  • weakness

Frequently asked questions

Here are a few other commonly asked questions about arm pain. Dr. Angela Bell has reviewed the answers.

How do you know if you have a pinched nerve in your arm?

A pinched nerve in your arm can cause pain, numbness, or a tingling sensation similar to pins and needles. Doctors will typically be able to tell if you have a pinched nerve based on your symptoms and the results of a physical examination. Imaging and nerve testing can confirm the diagnosis.

Can stress cause pain in your arm?

Stress can cause arm pain. Stress and anxiety may cause your muscles to become tense, resulting in pain.

What does cardiac arm pain feel like?

Arm pain that results from a cardiac event can be sudden and severe. It may radiate down the arm or up toward the neck and chin. If you experience arm pain along with symptoms such as chest pain or tightness, seek medical help immediately.

Summary

Various conditions — including injuries, infections, and other disorders — can cause arm pain. Although some cases of arm pain may resolve on their own or with at-home treatments, others will need medical intervention.

Talk with your doctor if you are experiencing arm pain. They can help determine the cause and a proper treatment plan.

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Medical Reviewer: Angela M. Bell, MD, FACP
Last Review Date: 2022 Jul 19
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