Common to Serious Arm Pain Causes

Treatment options start with ice and rest

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Arm pain can be in the upper or lower arm. You may feel arm pain on the outside of your shoulder. Arm pain can also travel further down the arm toward the elbow.

Common causes of arm pain include:

  • Bursitis
  • Tendinitis
  • Rotator cuff tear
  • Tennis elbow
  • Broken bones
  • Dislocation
  • Muscle bruises 

Serious causes of arm pain include: 

  • A pinched nerve from herniated discs
  • Thoracic outlet syndrome
  • Heart attack

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

arm pain causes

Verywell / Alexandra Gordon

Why Do I Have Arm Pain?

The causes of arm pain usually fall into three categories: overuse, trauma, and pain that spreads to the arm from another location.

Overuse Conditions

Overuse conditions are caused by repetitive use. Arm pain from overuse can be caused by:

  • Bursitis. This condition is the most common cause of arm and shoulder pain. It is when there is inflammation in the fluid-filled sac between the bones, muscles, and tendons.
  • Tendinitis. In this condition, there is inflammation around a tendon (a cord of tissue that connects muscle to bone). Tendinitis in the arm usually happens in the shoulder.
  • Rotator cuff tears. With this condition, people often feel a deep aching sensation over the outside of their arm. The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that surround the shoulder joint. Arm pain from a torn rotator cuff commonly comes on when lifting the arm overhead. Arm pain at night from a rotator cuff tear can be bad enough to awaken you from sleep, especially if you’re sleeping in an awkward position. Pain from a rotator cuff is typically considered a shoulder joint problem. The pain people have with tendonitis, bursitis, or tears of the rotator cuff is often felt further down the arm.
  • Tennis elbow. This condition is when the tendons on the outside of the elbow joint get irritated. Much of this arm pain is felt in the lower portion of the arm.

Traumatic Conditions

Several traumatic conditions can cause pain in the arm, including:

  • Broken bones (fractures). If you have had a recent fall or other significant injury and have arm pain, your healthcare provider will want to check if you have a broken bone. Fractures can occur around the shoulder joint or the large bone of the upper arm (humerus).
  • Dislocation. When you dislocate your shoulder or elbow or "pop it out of joint," it can cause a lot of arm pain. Shoulder dislocation and elbow dislocation happen when the joints get separated from their normal position.
  • Muscle contusion.: A contusion is a deep bruise. It 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

Sometimes, conditions in other parts of the body can cause you to feel pain in your arm even though the problem isn’t in your arm. 

“Radiating pain” or “referred” arm pain can sometimes be caused by a serious problem, so you should not ignore it. 

Possible causes of pain in your arm that are caused by conditions elsewhere in your body include:

Other sources of radiating pain include:

  • Pinched nerve. A pinched nerve in the cervical spine in the neck can cause arm pain.herniated disc can press on nerves that branch off from the spinal cord, leading to pain, tingling, and numbness in the arm.
  • Thoracic outlet syndrome. This condition can compress blood vessels or nerves in the shoulder region, leading to pain going down the arm.
  • Heart attack. Heart attack arm pain varies from person to person, but it can move from the shoulder and go down either arm or both arms. The pain may move to the chin or down the shoulder blades and across the upper back. The arm pain may or may not come with pressure in the chest that feels like a weight is on you.

Emergency Arm Pain

You can manage many causes of arm pain with some simple treatments. However, there are signs that you need to seek emergency medical care right away if you have arm pain. 

Some of the signs that arm pain could be serious include:

  • Pain or pressure in your chest (which can be symptoms of a heart attack)
  • A sudden injury that causes severe pain or deformity (signs of a possible fracture or dislocation)
  • Severe pain that does not get better with simple treatment at home
  • Swelling or redness that gets worse


Your healthcare provider will ask you about your arm pain and look at your arm. They may want to do special scans to look at other parts of your body, such as:

  • X-ray
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Ultrasound

Other tests, such as laboratory studies or an EKG, can help your provider figure out why you have arm pain as well as come up with a plan for treatment.

How to Manage Arm Pain At Home

The treatment for arm pain depends on what’s causing it. 

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 your arm.
  • Ice. Applying ice to your shoulder and arm can help reduce swelling and relieve pain.
  • Anti-inflammatory medication. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are effective at reducing inflammation and decreasing arm pain. Even though you can get these medications over-the-counter (OTC), ask your provider if you should take them and how much you should take.

How to Treat Arm Pain

If at-home measures are not relieving arm pain, you might need medical treatment including:

  • Physical therapy. Working with a physical therapist can help to relieve arm pain from injuries and prevent them from happening again.
  • Cortisone injections. A steroid injection is a powerful anti-inflammatory medication that goes right where you have pain. They are generally safe, and the side effects are usually minor. The relief from arm pain the shots offer may last up to a few weeks.
  • Surgery. If all other treatments fail to provide relief from arm pain, you might need surgery to fix the problem. For example, surgery can effectively repair rotator cuff tears, reduce inflammation around the shoulder, and fix broken bones.


Many things can cause arm pain, most often overuse injuries and traumatic injuries. Sometimes, more serious health problems that are actually in another part of the body can cause arm pain. 

Your provider will do a physical exam and imaging tests to diagnose the cause of your arm pain. 

Rest, ice, and anti-inflammatory medication are common starting treatments for arm pain. Sometimes, you may need physical therapy, cortisone injections, or surgery to fix the cause of your arm pain. 

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why do you have arm pain after a shot?

    If you have a vaccine in your arm, it can cause some pain when the needle goes in. You may also have a sore arm for a day or so after the shot as your body’s immune system responds. Flu shots, tetanus boosters, and other vaccines commonly cause a tender, sore arm.

    Some people have had hypersensitive reactions to the COVID-19 shot, most often the Moderna mRNA vaccine. This results in inflammation at the site of the injection. It can cause pain as well as redness, swelling, and itching, which may appear about a week after vaccination. The symptoms may go away on their own or resolve after treatment with steroids.

  • Why does my arm hurt if I didn’t injure it?

    Pain from overusing your arm is a common problem. Playing sports, working at a computer, or performing repetitive home tasks can cause inflammation and pain. Osteoarthritis, swelling related to hormonal changes or surgery, and heart conditions also frequently result in arm pain unrelated to an injury.

7 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.

  2. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. OrthoInfo. Elbow dislocation.

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

  4. MedlinePlus. Heart Attack.

  5. Harvard Medical School. Why does my arm hurt after I get a shot?.

  6. Lindgren AL, Austin AH, Welsh KM. Covid arm: delayed hypersensitivity reactions to sars-cov-2 vaccines misdiagnosed as cellulitis. J Prim Care Community Health. 2021;12:215013272110244. doi:10.1177/21501327211024431

  7. Hartford HealthCare. Arm Problems, Noninjury.

Additional Reading

By Jonathan Cluett, MD
Jonathan Cluett, MD, is board-certified in orthopedic surgery. He served as assistant team physician to Chivas USA (Major League Soccer) and the United States men's and women's national soccer teams.