Why Is There Pain in My Left Arm?

Medically reviewed by William Morrison, MD on November 10, 2016Written by Ann Pietrangelo

Pain in the left arm

If your arm hurts, your first thought may be that you injured your arm. But pain in one part of the body can sometimes originate elsewhere. A pain in your left arm could mean you have a joint injury, a pinched nerve, or a problem with your heart.

Read on to learn more about the causes of left arm pain and what symptoms could signal a serious problem.

Possible causes and additional symptoms of left arm pain

There are many reasons why you might have pain in your left arm, including complications from arthritis and other chronic diseases. From a simple strain to a heart problem, here are a few possible causes:

Heart attack

A blood clot or rupture in a coronary artery can stop the flow of blood to part of your heart. When that happens, the muscle can quickly become damaged. Without treatment, the heart muscle starts to die.

Additional symptoms of heart attack include:

Some people have intense symptoms. Others have symptoms that come and go or may be as mild as a case of indigestion.

Angina

Angina is a symptom of coronary heart disease. It means your heart muscles aren’t getting enough oxygen-rich blood.

Angina causes symptoms like those of a heart attack, but usually lasts only a few minutes. It usually gets worse when you’re active and better when you rest.

Bursitis

Bursa is the fluid-filled sack between the bone and moving parts of a joint.

When the bursa becomes inflamed, it’s called bursitis. Bursitis of the shoulder is often the result of repetitive movement. The risk of bursitis increases with age.

The pain usually increases as you move or if you lie down on your arm or shoulder. You may not be able to fully rotate your shoulder. Other symptoms include burning and tingling.

Fractured or broken bone

Despite pain, sometimes there’s no outward sign that you’ve fractured or broken a bone in your arm or wrist.

A broken bone in your arm, wrist, or hand can cause pain that gets worse when you move. Other symptoms include swelling and numbness. It’s possible to have a bone fracture or break in your arm or wrist even though your arm appears normal.

Herniated disk

Disks are the pads between the bones in the spinal column. They’re the shock absorbers of your spine. A herniated disk in your neck is one that has ruptured and is pressing on the nerves.

The pain may start in your neck, and then move to your shoulder and down your arm. You may also feel numbness, tingling, or a burning sensation in your arm. Pain may increase when you move.

Pinched nerve, or cervical radiculopathy

A pinched nerve is one that is compressed or inflamed. It can be a result of a herniated disk due to trauma or wear and tear injury.

Symptoms of a pinched nerve are similar to those of a herniated disk, and may include numbness, tingling, or a burning sensation in your arm. You may feel an increase in pain when you move.

Rotator cuff tear

Lifting a heavy object or performing repetitive motions can lead to a torn tendon in your shoulder’s rotator cuff. It significantly weakens the shoulder and makes it difficult to carry out daily tasks.

Rotator cuff injuries tend to hurt more if you lie down on your side. The arm pain gets worse when you move your arm a certain way. It can also make your arm considerably weaker. Range of motion in the shoulder is also affected.

Sprains and strains

A sprain is when you stretch or tear a ligament. An arm sprain can happen when you start to fall and brace yourself with your arms. A strain is when you twist or pull a tendon or muscle. It can happen when you lift something the wrong way or overstress your muscles.

Bruising, swelling, and weakness are common symptoms.

Tendinitis

Tendons are the flexible bands of tissue that connect bones and muscles. When tendons are inflamed, it’s called tendinitis. Tendinitis of the shoulder or elbow could cause arm pain. The risk of tendinitis grows as you age.

Symptoms of tendinitis are similar to symptoms of bursitis.

Vascular thoracic outlet syndrome

This is a condition in which blood vessels under the collarbone are compressed due to trauma or repetitive injury. Untreated, it can lead to progressive nerve damage.

Vascular thoracic outlet syndrome may cause numbness, tingling, and weakness of your arm. In some cases, the arm can swell. Other signs include discoloration of the hand, cold hand or arm, and a weak pulse in the arm.

What to expect at the doctor’s office

If you have left arm pain accompanied by other symptoms of heart attack, don’t delay. Seek emergency care. This could be a life-threatening event.

Emergency personnel will use an electrocardiogram (EKG) to monitor your heart. An intravenous line will be put in your arm to ensure you get enough fluids and to deliver medication, if necessary. You may also need an oxygen tube to help you breathe.

Other diagnostic testing will help determine if you had or are having a heart attack. Treatment depends on the extent of the damage.

Other causes of arm pain may require imaging tests to confirm. These may include X-ray, CT scans, or MRI.

Further testing depends on your symptoms and what can be determined from the imaging tests.

Treatments

If you have heart disease, treatment may include medications, symptom relief, and heart-healthy lifestyle changes. If you have severe heart disease, surgery is sometimes needed to clear or bypass blocked arteries.

Broken bones must be put back into position and immobilized until they heal. This usually requires wearing a cast for several weeks. Severe breaks sometimes require surgery.

For sprains and strains, elevate and rest your arm. Ice it several times a day. Bandages or splints may be helpful.

Learn more: How to make a splint »

Physical therapy, rest, and medication for pain and inflammation are the main treatments for:

  • bursitis
  • herniated disk
  • pinched nerve
  • rotator cuff tear
  • tendinitis
  • vascular thoracic outlet syndrome

In some cases, corticosteroids or surgery may be necessary.

Outlook

If your left arm pain was due to a heart attack, you’ll need long-term treatment for heart disease.

Most of the time, arm pain due to injury will heal with proper rest and treatment. Some shoulder problems may take longer to heal and some can get progressively worse. Recovery time may be longer as you age.

What to do if you have left arm pain

Heart attacks can come on suddenly or start slowly. Either way, the most common symptom is chest discomfort or pain. When in doubt, call your local emergency services immediately so emergency personnel can begin to help as soon as they arrive. When it comes to heart muscle damage, every second counts.

Here are a few other things to keep in mind:

  • If you’ve previously been diagnosed with heart disease, left arm pain should always be investigated.
  • A bone that doesn’t heal properly will give you more trouble in the long run. If there’s a possibility that you’ve fractured or broken a bone, see your doctor right away.
  • Without treatment, bursitis, tendinitis, and rotator cuff tears can lead to complications like frozen shoulder, which are much harder to treat. If you can’t fully rotate your shoulder, elbow, or wrist, see your doctor. Early treatment can prevent it from getting worse.
  • For strains and sprains, try resting your arm and keeping it elevated if possible. Apply ice for 20 minutes several times a day. Use over-the-counter pain medication.

While some of these conditions are not serious, they can become serious without proper care. Call your doctor if home remedies don’t help, the problem is getting worse, or it’s starting to interfere with your quality of life.

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