What Causes Arm Pain?

Medically reviewed by William A Morrison, MD on May 31, 2016Written by Ana Gotter

Arm pain is defined as discomfort or pain experienced anywhere throughout the arm, and it can include pain in the wrist, elbow, and shoulder. Arm pain can occur due to a variety of different causes. The most common causes are injury or overuse.... Read More

Arm pain

Arm pain is defined as discomfort or pain experienced anywhere throughout the arm, and it can include pain in the wrist, elbow, and shoulder. Arm pain can occur due to a variety of different causes. The most common causes are injury or overuse. Depending on the cause, the pain may start suddenly and go away or it may increase gradually.

Symptoms that occur with arm pain

The symptoms that can accompany arm pain will depend on the cause. They may include:

  • arm redness
  • stiffness
  • swelling
  • swollen lymph nodes under the arm

Causes of arm pain

Causes of arm pain and the accompanying symptoms can range from mild to severe. Possible causes of arm pain include:

Pinched nerves

Pinched nerves happen when a nerve has too much pressure on it due to surrounding:

  • bones
  • muscle
  • cartilage
  • tendons

Other symptoms can include:

  • tingling
  • numbness
  • a sharp pain
  • muscle weakness


Sprains are stretching or tearing of the ligaments or tendons, and they’re common injuries. You can take care of a mild sprain at home, but more severe strains may require surgery. Common symptoms can include swelling, bruising, and limited joint mobility.


Tendonitis is inflammation of the tendon. It commonly occurs in the shoulders, elbows, and wrists. Tendonitis can vary from mild to severe. Other symptoms include mild swelling, tenderness, and a dull, aching pain.

Rotator cuff injury

These occur most often in people who perform overhead motions in their daily lives, like painters or baseball players. Symptoms include a dull ache in the shoulder and potential arm weakness.

Broken bones

Broken or fractured bones can cause immense, sharp pain in the arm. You may hear an audible snap when the bone breaks. Symptoms include:

  • swelling
  • bruising
  • severe pain
  • a visible deformity
  • an inability to turn your palm upward

Rheumatoid arthritis

This is a chronic disorder caused by inflammation that most directly affects the joints. Common symptoms include:

  • warm, tender joints
  • swelling of the joints
  • stiffness in the joints
  • fatigue


Angina is chest pain that occurs when your heart isn’t getting enough oxygen. It can cause pain in the arm and shoulder as well as pressure in your chest, neck, and back. Having angina often indicates an underlying heart problem. Other symptoms can include:

  • chest pain
  • nausea
  • shortness of breath
  • dizziness

Heart attack

Heart attacks occur when blood can’t get to the heart due to a blockage, cutting off the heart’s oxygen supply. This can cause sections of the heart muscle to die if oxygen doesn’t return quickly. When experiencing a heart attack, you may have:

  • pain in one or both arms
  • shortness of breath
  • pain elsewhere in your upper body
  • nausea
  • a cold sweat
  • chest pain
  • dizziness

Call 911 if you think you’re having a heart attack.

Diagnosing arm pain

Your doctor will first need to diagnose the underlying cause of the pain to treat it. They’ll first conduct a history and physical exam, asking you about your activity, potential injuries, and symptoms. Based on your symptoms, the following tests may help your doctor make a diagnosis:

  • Your doctor may ask you to lift your arms or do other simple motions to evaluate your range of motion. This can help them identify the location and cause of potential injuries or pain.
  • Blood tests can help your detect some conditions that would cause arm pain, such as diabetes or certain conditions that cause inflammation of the joints.
  • X-rays can help your doctor diagnose broken or fractured bones.
  • If your doctor thinks your arm pain is associated with potential heart complications, they may order these tests to evaluate how your heart is working and evaluate the blood flow through your heart.
  • Ultrasounds use high-frequency sound waves to get an image of the inside of the body, and they can help your doctor detect problems with joints, ligaments, and tendons.
  • Your doctor can use MRIs and CT scans to get a more detailed image of soft tissue and bones. This can help them detect problems.

When arm pain is an emergency

Most of the time arm pain isn’t a sign of a medical emergency. In many cases, you can treat arm pain with home remedies. However, you should get emergency medical in some cases.

You should call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room if you suspect that a broken bone, heart attack, or another heart condition is causing your arm pain

Other symptoms of broken arms include:

  • severe, sharp pain
  • visible, physical deformities, like your arm or wrist sticking out an angle
  • being unable to bend or turn over arms, hands, or fingers

Other symptoms of a heart attack include:

  • chest pain or pressure
  • pain in the back, neck, or upper body
  • dizziness
  • lightheadedness
  • nausea
  • shortness of breath

Call 911 immediately if you have symptoms of a heart attack.

Treatments for arm pain

Treatments for arm pain will vary on the cause and the severity of your arm pain.

Some treatments for arm pain include the following

  • In some cases, pain in the arm may be severe enough that your doctor will prescribe painkillers.
  • For pain due to inflammation, anti-inflammatory medications like corticosteroids can help reduce the underlying cause and the subsequent pain. Oral medications, injections, and intravenous medications are available.
  • You may need to treat some arm pain with physical therapy, particularly when you have a limited range of motion.
  • In severe cases of arm pain, surgery may be necessary. For example, a surgeon can help repair torn ligaments or broken bones.

Home remedies

In addition to the medications your doctor can prescribe for arm pain, you can use a variety of treatments at home.

Examples of home remedies for arm pain include:


Sometimes, all the body needs is rest. Rest the area in pain, and avoid strenuous exercise and movement.


Icing injuries can often help to reduce swelling and inflammation. Use an ice pack, covered in a towel, for 20 minutes at a time on the affected area. Wait for at least an hour between ice packs.

Over-the-counter (OTC) painkillers

If you don’t want to take a trip to your doctor and your pain is mild, OTC pain medications like aspirin or ibuprofen can help treat your discomfort. Don’t use these medications for longer than their recommended use.


Wrapping the affected area with an elastic bandage or brace can help reduce swelling and prevent you from extending a joint too far, encouraging healing.


Keep your arm elevated to help reduce swelling and pain.

If any of these remedies make your pain worse, stop the home treatment immediately and consult your doctor.

Preventing arm pain

In many cases, arm pain occurs due to a preventable injury or condition. You can do the following to prevent injury and arm pain:

  • Stretch regularly, particularly before exercise.
  • Make sure you have the correct form for the exercises you’re performing to prevent injury.
  • Wear protective equipment while playing sports.
  • Stay in shape.
  • Lift objects carefully.

If, despite your best efforts, you’re still experiencing arm pain that’s persistent or interferes with your daily routine, see your doctor. They can determine the cause and offer you treatment options. 

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Medically reviewed by William A Morrison, MD on May 31, 2016Written by Ana Gotter

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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose. Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.

Medically reviewed by William A Morrison, MD on May 31, 2016Written by Ana Gotter
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