You use your arms for just about everything, such as lifting, holding, grabbing, and throwing. Pain in any part of your arms can debilitate you by preventing you from carrying out your daily activities on your own.
Arms are part of the upper extremities of the body. These are built of a network of bones, muscles, joints, nerves, blood vessels, and tendons. The arms extend from the shoulder joint to the joint located on your wrists. Pain in the arm can be engendered by an injury, infection, or other conditions.
Sore or painful arms are common but should not be taken lightly. Older adults are likely to have pain in the arm as a result of loss in muscle mass. Being physically active, children may often experience arm pain.
Causes of Arm Pain
Depending on the cause, the pain may start suddenly and go away or it may increase gradually.
Mild pain in the arms is usually the result of:
- Poor sleeping position
- Poor blood circulation
- Exercising or playing sports
- Repetitive motion of the arm
Some possible causes of severe arm pain include:
- A pinched nerve such as in carpal tunnel syndrome
- Shoulder injuries such as rotator cuff tear, shoulder instability, or other problems
- Skeletal muscle injury
- Broken bone
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Heart attack
- Elbow and wrist injuries
Symptoms of Arm Pain
The symptoms can be in one or both arms and can affect the wrist, elbow, and shoulder. Aside from pain, other symptoms associated with arm problems include:
- Stiffness in the joints
- Difficulty moving the arm
- Swollen lymph nodes under the arm
- A temperature above normal, shivering, broken skin around the shoulder in the case of weakness, burning, and tingling
Arm Pain as a Symptom of Angina
Angina occurs when the arteries supplying blood to the heart muscles become constricted. This can result in a reduced supply of blood to the heart. Angina is manifested as pain in the chest that is steadily spread to the neck, left arm, and back.
However, at times angina may be reflected merely as perpetual pain in the arm. This calls for a medical review.
Standard Treatment for Arm Pain
Arm pain can be resolved conventionally by tending to the cause of the pain. Your doctor will recommend you the following based on his diagnosis:
- Medications to relieve the pain and inflammation
- Arm exercises that aim to strengthen the broken arms or joints under the supervision of or as advised by a physiotherapist
- Taping your arm using a sling
- Using RICE therapy to treat your arm pain
RICE stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation.
- Rest: Let your arm rest for a minimum period of 36 hours. Give it some time to heal, and avoid lifting heavy weights or objects. This will help your inflamed tissues to heal.
- Ice: Ice will help relieve the pain and swelling around the injured area. Use a soft cloth to cover the skin before placing an ice compress to prevent frostbites.
- Compression: Use an elastic bandage to tape the affected region of the arm. This will help relieve the pain. However, do not compress the painful region too tightly.
- Elevation: Rest the affected arm on a pillow to drain away the excess fluid collecting at the injured site.
Surgery may be recommended if problems and the pain persist despite conservative management.
Treating Arm Pain at Home
Minor arm pain usually resolves on its own. Also, there are a few natural remedies that can help you deal with arm problems and pain and hasten the healing process.
1. Give Your Arm a Rest
For mild arm pain, the best thing you can do is rest.
Proper rest is a key component for repairing soft tissue damage that often occurs with minor pain. On the other hand, continued or additional strain will cause more inflammation and pain and lengthen the healing time.
For the first 24 to 72 hours, allow the painful arm to rest as much as possible and avoid strenuous exercise and movement. Also, do not type or do anything to make the sore arm feel worse. This will ensure quick reduction of swelling.
2. Apply Cold Compress
Arm pain can be treated with cold compresses. However, it is effective primarily during the initial stage.
The cold temperature helps make the tissue in the painful area numb, therefore alleviating the pain. It also helps reduce inflammation.
- Put some ice cubes in a plastic bag and wrap the bag in a thin towel.
- Place it on the affected area for 10 to 15 minutes.
- Repeat the application a few times daily for a few days.
You can also soak a towel in cold water and apply it on the painful arm.
3. Use Hot Compress
Just like cold compresses, hot compresses can help treat arm pain. However, for the hot compress to be effective, only use it after 48 hours from when the injury occurred or the pain began.
Heat increases the blood flow to the area, which in turn decreases the stiffness and pain.
- Fill a hot-water bag with hot water and apply it on the aching arm for 10 to 15 minutes. Repeat the application a few times a day until you get complete relief.
- Also, you can stand in the shower and run warm to slightly hot water on your arm for 5 to 10 minutes. Do this twice daily.
4. Wrap It Up with a Bandage
Wrapping the affected area with a compression bandage or elastic bandage can help reduce swelling and encourage healing.
Compression puts even pressure on the painful area. Also, it gives ample support to your painful arm. Furthermore, it helps you move around more comfortably.
Compress the affected area by wrapping it with an elastic bandage, which you can buy from the drugstore. Use the compression wrap for a few days or until the pain and swelling are gone.
5. Raise Your Arm
Sometimes, the best thing you can do to reduce arm pain is to keep the painful area elevated. Elevation promotes proper blood flow to the area and elimination of waste products to speed up the healing process.
It also keeps pressure off the injury, makes you more comfortable, and provides support.
Use one or two pillows under your arm while resting or sleeping. If necessary, use a sling to keep your arm elevated.
6. Massage the Affected Area
Massaging the affected area using gentle pressure can help with the pain. Massage improves blood circulation, which in turn helps repair the damaged tissue faster.
A gentle massage also helps release stress and tension in the area.
- Warm up a little sesame, mustard, coconut, or olive oil for a few seconds in the microwave.
- Rub the warm oil on the painful part of your arm.
- Massage the area gently using a little pressure to increase blood circulation and relieve the pain.
- Do this a few times a day for several days.
You can also go get a massage regularly from a professional, which may prove helpful.
7. Drink Ginger Tea
Ginger has been documented as an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. These properties can help heal arm pain.
A study published in 2015 in the Journal of the Islamic Republic of Iran suggested the use of as little as 2 grams of ginger to have anti-inflammatory and analgesic effect on sore muscles resulting from exercise.
It helps eliminate inflammation of any type, including in the arm and shoulder. It also boosts blood circulation to speed up the healing process.
A study published in the Journal of Pain found that the daily intake of ginger can help lower muscle pain following an exercise-induced muscle injury.
- For internal use, you can drink up to 3 cups of ginger tea daily. To prepare ginger tea, put 1 teaspoon of chopped ginger in 2 cups of hot water, cover, and let it simmer for 5 to 10 minutes. Strain it, add honey for added taste, and drink it while it is still warm.
- For external use, wrap 3 tablespoons of freshly grated ginger in a piece of cheesecloth. Put the bundle in hot water for 30 seconds. Allow it to cool, and then place it on the painful area for 15 minutes. Repeat the application a few times daily until you get relief.
8. Rub a Paste of Turmeric
Turmeric is an age-old home remedy for arm pain. A compound known as curcumin in turmeric contains antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents that work well to reduce the related swelling and pain.
In a 2011 study published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, researchers found that curcumin can be used to suppress biological mechanisms that spark inflammation in tendon diseases.
- For external use, make a paste by mixing 2 teaspoons of turmeric powder with 1 teaspoon of coconut oil. Rub the paste on the painful or swollen area and let it dry. Rinse the dried paste off with warm water. Do this at least twice a day.
- For internal use, mix 1 teaspoon of turmeric powder into 1 cup of boiled milk. Sweeten it with honey. Drink this turmeric milk two times a day.
9. Try Cayenne Pepper
Cayenne pepper is another good remedy for any kind of pain, including arm pain.
Cayenne pepper contains a compound called capsaicin, which has been accredited with analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties. These help reduce the pain as well as swelling and inflammation in the affected region.
- Mix ½ teaspoon of cayenne pepper powder and 1 tablespoon of lukewarm olive oil. Apply the mixture on the affected area and massage gently for 20 or 30 seconds. Rinse it off after 10 minutes. Use this remedy twice daily until the pain is gone.
- Alternatively, you can use over-the-counter creams containing capsaicin to massage the affected area.
10. Eat Magnesium-Rich Foods
Magnesium plays a crucial role in various functions of the body at the cellular level, especially the sound working of the nerves and muscles contraction.
About 2/3rd of the magnesium found in your body resides in your skeleton, which makes it essential to maintain its levels in order to avoid any health problems in the muscles or nerves.
Arm pain related to the bones or muscles in the region can be taken care of by including magnesium in your diet.
- Enrich your diet with magnesium-rich foods such as beans, pumpkin seeds, nuts, whole grains, and green leafy vegetables.
11. Monitor Your Calcium and Vitamin D Levels
Vitamin D deficiency can induce pain as a result of weakened bones.
Vitamin D levels cannot be maintained by mere consumption of natural food. Because this vitamin is synthesized by the body upon exposure to sunlight, sunlight is an important factor in maintaining vitamin D levels. Inadequate exposure to the sun can lead to vitamin D deficiency.
The deficiency of vitamin D hampers the absorption of calcium and phosphate and results in their depleted levels in the body. This happens as a result of the action of the parathyroid hormone to maintain the levels of calcium in the blood by pulling out the calcium stored in the bones. This inadvertently has adverse effects on bone health, causing bone disorders such as weakened bones, osteomalacia in adults, and rickets in children.
- If the pain in your arm is caused by weak bones or calcium and vitamin D deficiency, ask your doctor for supplements.
- Alternatively, you can include food sources in your diet that can help keep your calcium levels at optimum. Consume sardines, salmon, yogurt, milk, cheese, seeds, and soybeans.
- Sun exposure for at least 5–30 minutes two times a week can help.
- Cod liver oil, trout, swordfish, wild salmon, and mackerel are food sources that can provide you with vitamin D.
Mild arm pain responds well to the conventional RICE therapy and painkillers. However, it is necessary to seek medical attention if you experience arm pain for several weeks. This persistent pain may entail a risk of complications or permanent damage in severe cases.
Some of the complications include:
- Permanent damage to the nerve
- Loss of the arm as a result of surgical amputation
- Extended periods of pain
- Loss of strength in the arms
- A spread of infection to other organs
- Inability to do simple tasks in daily life that involve the use of the affected limb
When to See a Doctor
If the symptoms do not improve or if you are prone to recurring bouts of arm pain, see your doctor or physiotherapist. Other conditions that warrant medical consultation include the following:
- The pain persists for several weeks without any sign of improvement.
- The swelling, pain, or redness has increased.
- You experience a tingling or numbness in the affected area.
- You experience arm pain after an exercise session that passes away with rest.
- You develop a fever and inflammation over a short time duration. This may happen if there is an infection in the arm.
- You hear a snapping noise from an injured arm.
- You experience persistent weakness, night pain, and swelling.
- Make sure you are getting enough minerals, such as calcium and magnesium, in your diet.
- For mild pain and swelling, over-the-counter pain medications such as aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, and acetaminophen can help treat your discomfort.
- Undergo physical therapy, particularly when you have a limited range of motion.
- Due to the pain, the arm, hand, and fingers can swell. Be sure to take off rings, bracelets, watches, and all other jewelry.
- If you are having arm pain due to muscle cramps, make sure to drink enough water. At times, dehydration can cause muscle cramps that can be felt in your arms.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol when suffering from any kind of pain.
- Control stress, as too much stress can weaken your body’s defenses and make it harder for your body to repair itself.
Points to Remember While Exercising to Prevent Arm Pain
- Wear protective equipment while playing sports.
- Be careful when lifting heavy objects.
- Stretch regularly, particularly before exercise, to reduce the risk of pain in the arms.
- Make sure you have the correct form for the exercises you are performing to prevent injury.
- Always make sure that the equipment you are using to exercise or do sports is in accordance with your ability level and size.
- Eat fruits such as cherries and blueberries to help soothe sore muscles.
- Follow a protein-rich diet so that your muscles can rebuild sufficiently after training or competing.
- When exercising, use the proper positions and movements to avoid straining your muscles, joints, or tendons.
Expert Answers (Q&A)
Answered by Dr. Daniel Zanotti, MD (Orthopedic Surgeon)
Is arm pain considered a sign of heart attack?
Arm pain can be caused by many things, such as muscle or tendon injuries, joint problems (such as arthritis), nerve issues (carpel tunnel syndrome), neck problems, and even heart attack. Fortunately, most causes of arm pain are related to the musculoskeletal system and can be diagnosed and treated relatively easily.
Can pinched nerve lead to arm pain?
Pinched nerves either in the cervical spine (neck) or down the arm (carpel tunnel, cubital tunnel) can lead to arm pain. Typically with a pinched nerve, the patient experiences numbness and tingling more than pain, but pain can also be a major symptom.
Depending on the severity, pinched nerves usually respond to medicines, physical therapy and non-operative treatments. Occasionally, a pinched nerve from a herniated disc or entrapped nerve needs to be surgically addressed.
What are the tell-tale signs of tendonitis in hands?
Hand tendonitis occurs when the muscles and tendons in the hand become inflamed. It can start in the elbow and radiate toward the fingers. Pain, while grasping or lifting objects, is a common complaint.
Tendonitis pain follows the path of the individual tendon that is affected. Again, therapy, bracing, medicine and injections are often helpful. Hand tendonitis rarely requires surgical intervention, but surgery can be helpful in refractory cases.
Can arm pain be caused by stress and anxiety?
Stress and anxiety are being investigated as causes for more and more problems. Oftentimes, excessive stress can lead to muscle tightness, especially in the neck. Tension headaches are common from neck tightness.
The muscle tightness can lead to spasms and pain down into the arm. Sitting at a computer all day is a common cause of stress and muscle tension in the neck, and can lead to neck and arm pain.
Can cervical spondylosis cause arm pain?
Cervical spondylosis refers to the general deterioration of the discs and joints in your neck. This worsens with age, leading to bone spur formation and disc bulging. Both of these can cause the nerves that exit the spine to be pinched or tightened.
When the nerve gets pinched, patients feel pain and numbness/tingling in the arm. Therapy is often a successful treatment, but if the nerve pinching becomes severe it can require surgical intervention.
Please provide some important points to our readers on properly managing arm pain.
As I mentioned, arm pain can be caused by many different things. In general, maintaining good posture and neck strength is important, especially for those who work at a computer. Neck exercises can help keep the spine aligned. Arm strengthening can keep the neck and arm muscles limber and strong. Avoiding repetitive activities can help minimize tendonitis too.
If someone experiences any of these pains, it is always good to see an orthopedist sooner rather than later as quick diagnosis and treatment can help people get back to their favorite activities as soon as possible.
About Dr. Daniel Zanotti, MD: Dr. Zanotti is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon with a subspecialty certification in Orthopedic Sports Medicine and holds a Doctor of Medicine degree from Pennsylvania State University. He has been practicing at the Center for Orthopedics since 2003, after, completing his orthopedic residency and general surgery internship at The Milton S. Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
During his sports medicine fellowship at the prestigious Kerlan-JobeOrthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles, Dr. Zanotti served as a team physician for the Los Angeles Lakers, Dodgers, Sparks, Galaxy and Kings, as well as the Anaheim Angels and Mighty Ducks.
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