Causes of Arm Pain and Treatment Options

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People often experience arm pain on the outside of the shoulder. It can sometimes travel further down toward the elbow. Causes of arm pain include overuse injuries, traumatic injuries, and conditions elsewhere in the body.

This article explains the causes, diagnosis, and treatment of arm pain.

arm pain causes

Verywell / Alexandra Gordon

Causes

Arm pain falls into three major categories: overuse, trauma, and pain that spreads to the arm from another location.

Overuse Conditions

Overuse conditions are those that occur from repetitive use. They include:

  • Bursitis: In this condition, inflammation occurs in a fluid-filled sac between the bones, muscles, and tendons. It is the most common cause of arm and shoulder pain.
  • Tendinitis: In this condition, inflammation occurs around a tendon, a cord of tissue that connects muscle to bone. In the arm, tendinitis usually happens in the shoulder.
  • Rotator cuff tears: With this condition, people often complain of a deep aching sensation over the outside of the arm. The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that surround the shoulder joint. Pain commonly occurs when lifting the arm overhead. The pain at night can be significant enough to awaken you from sleep, mainly when sleeping in an awkward position.
  • Tennis elbow: This condition results when the tendons on the outside of the elbow joint are irritated. Much of this pain is in the lower portion of the arm.

The rotator cuff is typically considered a shoulder joint problem. However, the pain people experience with tendonitis, bursitis, or tears of the rotator cuff is often felt further down the arm.

Traumatic Conditions

Several traumatic conditions can cause pain in the arm. These include:

  • Fractures: If you have had a recent fall or other significant injury and have arm pain, your healthcare provider should consider a broken bone. Fractures could occur around the shoulder joint or the humerus (the large bone of the upper arm).
  • Dislocation: When you dislocate your shoulder or elbow, or "pop it out of joint," it can cause significant arm pain. Shoulder dislocation and elbow dislocation occur when the joints get separated from their normal position.
  • Muscle contusions: A contusion (a deep bruise) is a common sports injury that can lead to arm pain. This injury causes bruising, swelling, and sometimes the build-up of scar tissue in the muscle.

Other Sources of Arm Pain

Some conditions elsewhere in the body can lead to so-called "radiating" symptoms. That means the pain is felt in a different location than its cause. You can experience pain in the arm when the source of the problem is elsewhere in the body.

The most concerning of possible radiating symptoms is angina or a heart attack. Sometimes people with heart problems will experience pain radiating down the arm.

Other sources of radiating pain include:

  • Pinched nerve: Another source of radiating pain is a pinched nerve in the cervical spine in the neck. A herniated disc can press on nerves branching off from the spinal cord, leading to pain, tingling, and numbness in the arm.
  • Thoracic outlet syndrome: Lastly, this condition can compress the blood vessels or nerves in the shoulder region, leading to pain going down the arm.

Recap

Overuse injuries, traumatic injuries, or pain radiating from elsewhere in the body can all lead to arm pain. Since radiating pain in the arm may indicate a heart condition, it's always wise to seek a diagnosis if you experience arm pain without a known injury or cause.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

You can manage many causes of arm pain with some simple treatments. However, there are signs that you should see a healthcare provider urgently.

Some of the signs of a more concerning source of arm pain include:

  • Pain or pressure in your chest, symptoms of a heart attack
  • A sudden injury that causes severe pain or deformity, indicating a possible fracture or dislocation
  • Severe pain that does not improve with simple treatment
  • Swelling or redness that gets worse

Diagnosis

Your healthcare provider will make a diagnosis by first taking a careful medical history. Understanding your symptoms can help your doctor determine if the source is coming from within the arm or elsewhere in the body.

In addition to a physical examination of the cervical spine, shoulder, and elbow, imaging studies can help find the origin of the pain. Imaging may include:

There may be situations where other tests, such as laboratory studies or an EKG, can help to guide treatment. For example, additional tests may be beneficial if your healthcare provider suspects that the source of the problem is from elsewhere in the body.

Treatment

As with any medical condition, treatment depends on the underlying cause.

For more common overuse causes of arm pain, some simple treatments include:

  • Rest: Avoiding lifting, pushing, or pulling can be helpful. Wearing a sling can be supportive and also act as a reminder to rest the arm.
  • Ice: Applying ice to the shoulder and arm can help prevent and reduce swelling and relieve pain.
  • Anti-inflammatory medication: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are effective at reducing inflammation and decreasing pain. These medications can have possible side effects, so you should take them under the direction of your healthcare provider.
  • Physical therapy: Working with a skilled physical therapist can help to alleviate arm pain due to injuries.
  • Cortisone injections: A steroid injection is a powerful anti-inflammatory medication delivered directly to where you experience pain. They are generally safe, and side effects tend to be minor. The relief they offer may last up to a few weeks.
  • Surgery: Healthcare providers may perform surgery when more straightforward treatments fail to provide adequate relief. Surgery can effectively repair rotator cuff tears, remove inflammation around the shoulder, and repair fractures of the arm.

Summary

Many things can cause arm pain. However, they often fall under the categories of overuse injuries, traumatic injuries, or pain that radiates from elsewhere in the body.

Diagnosis may include a physical exam and certain imaging tests. Treatment depends on the cause but often includes rest, ice, and anti-inflammatory medication. More complex or persistent conditions may benefit from physical therapy, cortisone injections, or surgery.

A Word From Verywell

While simple treatments are often effective at managing arm pain, it is essential to identify the cause correctly. That way, you can be sure that the treatment is the correct one for your condition.

In addition, there are some serious conditions, notably heart conditions, associated with arm pain. So, if you have an abrupt onset of arm pain without a known injury, be sure to get it checked out by your healthcare provider right away.

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3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. OrthoInfo. Shoulder impingement/rotator cuff tendinitis. Updated July 2021.

  2. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. OrthoInfo. Elbow dislocation. Updated October 2017.

  3. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. OrthoInfo. Cervical radiculopathy (pinched nerve). Updated August 2020.

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