Arm Pain: 10 Main Causes & What to Do

Clinical review: Marcelle Pinheiro
Physiotherapist
March 2022
  1. Muscle strain
  2. Tendinitis
  3. Anxiety or panic attack
  4. Rotator cuff injury
  5. Shoulder dislocation
  6. Osteoarthritis
  7. Heart attack
  8. Angina
  9. Frozen shoulder
  10. Osteoporosis
  11. When to go to the doctor

Arm pain is generally not a sign of a serious problem, especially when it's mild and comes on gradually.  Many times, it is related to muscular or tendon problems, from over-training or an injury.

In order to identify what is causing this symptoms, take note of when the pain started, how severe it is, and if it improves or worsens with rest. If the pain is very intense, if it happened suddenly, or if you have other serious symptoms like dizziness or shortness of breath, you should go to the hospital or see your doctor.

Learn about the 10 common causes of arm pain below: 

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1. Muscle strain

Pain associated with a muscle strain is usually localized to the affected muscle and generally emerges following a fall, direct trauma or over-training at the gym. The region can become a little swollen, although it is not always noticeable. 

What to do: During the first 48 hours, you can place a cold compress on the pain area. After this period, you can start using warm compresses for 20 minutes, once or twice a day. Applying a topical anti-inflammatory cream can also help.

2. Tendinitis

Arm pain can also be a sign of tendinitis, which is a condition that often affects people in jobs that require prolonged elevation of the arms all day and repetitive movements. Examples include teachers, construction workers and painters.

Tendinitis can also affect people who work out or people who fall and hit their shoulder or elbow on the floor. The pain can be localized to the elbow or shoulder, but it can also radiate throughout the arm.

What to do: Place a cold compress, or a bag of chipped ice, over the affected area to treat the pain. A physiotherapist may be a good option for persistent pain that lasts over 1 month. 

3. Anxiety or panic attack

During an episode of anxiety or a panic attack, it is possible to experience symptoms like agitation, palpitations, chest pain, feeling hot, sweats, shortness of breath and a strange sensation in the arm. During a panic attack, you may not be able to leave the house, avoiding contact with other people and preferring to be alone in your room.

What to do: When experiencing anxiety or a panic attack, it is important to take a deep breath and remain calm. If needed, squat down and hug your knees so that you can feel more protected. Learn more about how to identify an anxiety attack and how to stop it.

4. Rotator cuff injury

Arm pain that is closer to the shoulder can be a sign of a rotator cuff injury. This occurs when there is an injury in the structures that help to stabilize the shoulder, leading to pain as well as weakness and difficulty lifting the arm.

What to do: You are advised to rest, apply ice and complete physiotherapy. The doctor may prescribe anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen to help relieve pain. Surgical intervention may be needed if pain does not improve.

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5. Shoulder dislocation

Strong shoulder pain that radiates to the arm can be a sign of shoulder dislocation. This occurs when the bone gets out of its normal position in the shoulder joint. This type of injury is common in people who practice sports like swimming or basketball, but it can also occur after an accident ou after picking up a heavy object incorrectly. 

In addition to pain, you may also experience reduced range of motion in the affected arm.

What to do: You should see a doctor to pop the shoulder back into place. To relieve pain, you can take a warm bath or apply a topical cream like diclofenac on the shoulder and arm.

6. Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is one of the most common reasons for arm pain, It mainly happens after the age of 45 and pain usually occurs with wide-range movements of the shoulder or elbow. This type of pain can persist for a few hours, and you may feel like you have sand or rocks in your joints when moving.

What to do: Treatment for osteoarthritis is done with the use of medication prescribed by the doctor, and with physiotherapy sessions to improve joint mobility. Treatment is usually chronic, and depending on the case, surgery may be necessary.

7. Heart attack

Although it is rare, arm pain can also be a sign of a heart attack. During a heart attack, it is common for pain felt in the chest to radiate to the arm, causing a heavy sensation as well as tingling. Pain is more commonly felt in the left arm.

In addition, other symptoms that may also indicate a heart attack include chest tightness, indigestion and throat discomfort. Learn more about the 10 main symptoms of a heart attack.

What to do: Anytime you suspect a heart attack, it is important to proceed immediately to the emergency room.

8. Angina

Another cardiac condition that can cause arm pain is angina. Chest pain is also felt with angina, although it is less intense.

Angina is common in people with circulation abnormalities, like atherosclerosis, high blood pressure or diabetes. It occurs due to changes in cardiac arteries that impede adequate blood flow, causing pain to the heart muscle. Angina pain can occur with strong emotions or after exertion.

What to do: If you suspect angina, it is important to go to the emergency room or consult a cardiologist to confirm a diagnosis and start appropriate treatment. The doctor may recommend the use medication to improve blood flow in the cardiac arteries, like a nitrate or isosorbide.

9. Frozen shoulder

Frozen shoulder, also known as adhesive capsulitis, is characterized by immobility of the shoulder (as though it was frozen) and pain that radiates to the arm. It often worsens at night and occurs suddenly, sometimes when sleeping. It may be related to psychological disorders. You may experience pain that lasts for several months, affecting activities of daily living like getting dressed or combing your hair.

What to do: Physiotherapy sessions are recommended with exercises based in kinesiotherapy and clinical pilates, as well as passive motion exercises.

10. Osteoporosis

When arm pain is localized to the bones and is felt in other bones of the body (like in the legs), it can be a sign of osteoporosis. This type of pain is usually present even with rest, and is most common in people over the age of 50, particularly in menopausal women.

What to do: Treatment should involve the consumption of food that is rich in calcium and supplementation of calcium and vitamin D.

When to go to the doctor

Although arm pain is usually not a serious problem in most cases, it is important to go to the hospital when:

  • You suspect a heart attack or angina
  • If the arm pain emerges suddenly and is intense
  • If the pain worsens with movement
  • If there is a visible deformity of the arm
  • If the pain worsens as time goes on

If you also have a fever, it may be possible that the arm pain is related to an infection. In this case, it is also important for you to go to the hospital for assessment and appropriate treatment.

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Edited by Tua Saude editing team in March 2022. Clinical review completed by Marcelle Pinheiro - Physiotherapist in March 2022.

References

  • Mark Dutton. Fisioterapia ortopédica: exame, avaliação e intervenção. 2ª.ed. Porto Alegre: Artmed, 2010.
  • HARVARD HEALTH PUBLISCHING. Ouch! Shoulder pain and how to treat it. Available on: <https://www.health.harvard.edu/pain/ouch-shoulder-pain-and-how-to-treat-it>. Access in 23 Apr 2019
Show more references
  • THE NATIONAL HEALTH SERVICE. Shoulder pain. Available on: <https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/shoulder-pain/>. Access in 23 Apr 2019
  • NETO, Onofre A.; COSTA, Carlos M. C.; SIQUEIRA, José T.; TEIXEIRA, Manoel J. Dor princípios e prática. 1.ed. Porto Alegre: Artmed, 2009. 656-695.
  • KISNER, Carolyn; COLBY Lynn Allen. Exercícios terapêuticos: Fundamentos e Técnicas. 6ª.ed. São Paulo: Manole, 2016.
Clinical review:
Marcelle Pinheiro
Physiotherapist
Physiotherapist degree provided by the University of Estácio de Sá (Brazil). Licensed to practice under CREFITO #170751.