Right Arm Pain: 11 Common Causes & What To Do

Clinical review: Marcelle Pinheiro
Physiotherapist
June 2022

Pain in the right arm can occur for many reasons. The most common reasons include the result of direct trauma or an injury, having poor posture, repetitive strain or sleeping on the arm.

Pain can occur at any point of the arm, from the shoulder to the wrist, and usually affects areas such as the muscles, tendons, nerves, joints, blood vessels, and skin. Arm pain rarely indicates a more serious problem, like a neurological disease\or a heart attack.

To identify the exact cause of the pain, you are advised to seek medical attention. The doctor will assess your symptoms, perform a physical exam of the region and, if necessary, request tests to reach a diagnosis and indicate the most correct treatment.

The are many causes for right arm pain, but you can find the main ones below:

1. Exertion

Intense arm exercise, which is more common in people who go to the gym or play sports, may cause minor injuries to the muscles of the arm or joints of the shoulder, elbow, or wrist. This can cause pain that usually improves after a few days of rest.

When effort is repetitive, especially in people whose work involves moving their arms, such as teachers who write on the board, machine workers, musicians or athletes, it is possible to have Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorder (WRMSD), also known as Repetitive Stress Injury (RSI).

What to do: To prevent this type of injury, you should consult a doctor and physiotherapist about correct postures that are appropriate for you. You should avoid over-exerting the affected arm. When pain is felt, the doctor may recommend anti-inflammatory medication and rest.

2. Tendinitis

Tendinitis is an inflammation of the tendon, a tissue that connects the muscle to the bone. This condition causes symptoms such as localized pain and decreased strength. It is most common in people who perform repetitive tasks with the shoulder or arm (in a job, for example) or for athletes.

What to do: To treat tendinitis, it is recommended you avoid any of exertion of the affected arm. You can take analgesics or anti-inflammatory drugs as indicated by the doctor, and participate in any recommended physiotherapy sessions. 

3. Carpal tunnel syndrome

Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs due to compression of the median nerve, which extends from the arm to the hand. This syndrome is characterized by the feeling of tingling and a sensation of pins and needles mainly on the thumb, index finger or middle finger.

This type of syndrome is more common in professionals working with their hands and wrists, such as typists, hairdressers or computer programmers, for example. Symptoms typically appear gradually, and may even become disabling over time.

What to do: Treatment for carpal tunnel is  typically directed by an orthopedic surgeon or rheumatologist, and includes the use of anti-inflammatory drugs, rest and physiotherapy.

4. Poor circulation

An obstructed blood vessel caused by a clot or thrombosis can affect the circulation of blood in the arm. Changes in circulation can result in pain or a tingling sensation, heaviness and swelling of the affected limb.

Poor circulation in the arm should be suspected when hands are very pale or purplish, if there is swelling in the arm or hands, or if a tingling sensation is felt.

What to do: It is necessary to see a general practitioner or cardiologist, who will assess you and order further testing like a doppler ultrasound of the arm. Treatment depends on the cause, and may involve increasing fluid intake, exercise or, in more severe cases, the use of medication to facilitate circulation.

5. Heart attack

Acute myocardial infarction or angina can cause chest pain radiating to the arm. Arm pain associated with a heart attack is more commonly felt on the left side, but it can also occur on the right. Although it is generally rare during a heart attack, right arm pain can occur in populations who present more often with atypical symptoms, as is the case for older adults, diabetics or women.

Arm pain that happens during a heart attack is usually associated with a burning or tightening sensation in th arm, chest pain, shortness of breath, nausea, or sweating. Be sure you know the symptoms of a heart attack

What to do: If a heart attack is suspected, you should proceed immediately to the emergency room. The doctor will assess your symptoms and order testing to reach a heart attack diagnosis or rule it out.

6. Diabetic neuropathy 

Diabetic neuropathy is a condition that occurs due to prolonged elevated blood sugars that cause progressive nerve damage. It affects the arms, hands and feet and usually causes symptoms like sharp pain, burning, tingling or numbness. 

Diabetic neuropathy generally occurs more frequently in people who do not treat their diabetes adequately and control their blood sugar levels with a diabetic diet

What to do: If you have been diagnosed with diabetes, you should be monitored by an endocrinologist, who may prescribe antidiabetic medication, like insulin, to regulate your blood sugars. To relieve neuropathy pain, the doctor may recommend medications like anticonvulsants, antidepressants or opioids, like pregabalin, amitriptyline, or tramadol. Read more about tips to lower blood sugar that you can consider as a complement to your medical treatment. 

7. Bursitis 

Bursitis is the inflammation of a bursa, which is a small fluid-filled sac that serves to cushion the bones, tendons and muscles. It prevents friction among these structures to prevent damage. Inflammation of a shoulder bursa can cause arm pain, difficulty lifting the arm above the head, muscle weakness, or tingling that radiates down the arm. 

What to do: Treatment for bursitis should be monitored by an orthopedic surgeon or family doctor. It involves rest, cold compresses, anti-inflammatories and/or analgesic use. The doctor may recommend steroid injections in the affected joint, as well as physiotherapy to reduce inflammation and improve mobility. Surgery may be necessary in some cases to drain fluid or remove a chronically swollen bursa. 

8. Herniated disc 

A herniated disc in the cervical spine can occur when the intervertebral disc bulges from the vertebra in the neck area. It can protrude into an irregular spot, or rupture, leading to nerve compression and neck pain that radiates to the arms, hands and fingers. 

In addition, it can cause a tingling sensation, numbness or muscular weakness. Learn more about what causes different types of hernias

What to do: Treatment for a herniated cervical disc should be guided by an orthopedic surgeon. He or she may advise physiotherapy or medications to help with pain and inflammation, like acetaminophen or ibuprofen. In more serious cases, surgery to repair the hernia may be necessary.

9. Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disease in which the immune system produced antibodies that attack healthy cells in the body. It leads to inflammation in the joints, like the elbow or wrist, and causes persistent pain, swelling, difficulty holding objects and even visible deformity. See what causes rheumatoid arthritis and how it can present. 

What to do: Treatment for rheumatoid arthritis should be monitored by a rheumatologist, and may include the use of medication, an anti-inflammatory diet and physiotherapy to relieve pain and swelling and improve overall quality of life. 

10. Rotator cuff injury  

The rotator cuff is comprised of a group of nerves that sends signals from the spinal cord to the shoulders, arms and hands. When these nerves are injured, due to compression, impingement or car accidents, for example, it can cause an electric shock sensation down the arm, as well as tingling, numbness, weakness, paralysis or decreased control. 

What to do: Rotator cuff injuries that are nerve-related should be assessed by a neurologist. Treatment depends on the severity of the injury, but it can involve the use of analgesic medications to relieve pain, physiotherapy, or surgical repair. 

11. Fracture

A fracture is a break in the bone that is caused by trauma, like falls, flows or accidents. It can also occur with osteoporosis or bone tumors and causes intense pain, swelling, visible deformity and total or partial inability to move the arm. 

What to do: If you suspect a bone in your arm has fractured, you should seek medical attention immediately. The doctor will order an x-ray to confirm the diagnosis and start treatment, which may involve repositioning of the bone, immobilization with a cast or splints, or even surgical repair. 

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Atualizado por Tua Saude editing team, em June de 2022. Clinical review por Marcelle Pinheiro - Physiotherapist, em June de 2022.

References

  • LU, L.; et al. Myocardial Infarction: Symptoms and Treatments. Cell Biochem Biophys. 72. 3; 865-7, 2015
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  • SHARRAK, S.; AL KHALILI, Y. IN: STATPEARLS [INTERNET]. TREASURE ISLAND (FL): STATPEARLS PUBLISHING. Cervical Disc Herniation. 2021. Available on: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK546618/>. Access in 20 Jan 2022
  • SCOTT, David L.; WOLFE, Frederick; HUIZINGA, Tom W J. Rheumatoid arthritis. Lancet. 376. 9746; 1094-108, 2010
  • LIN, Yen-Ju; ANZAGHE, Martina; SCHULKE, Stefan. Update on the Pathomechanism, Diagnosis, and Treatment Options for Rheumatoid Arthritis. Cells. 9. 4; 880, 2020
  • FELDMAN, Eva L.; et al. Diabetic neuropathy. Nat Rev Dis Primers. 5. 1; 1-40, 2019
Clinical review:
Marcelle Pinheiro
Physiotherapist
Physiotherapist degree provided by the University of Estácio de Sá (Brazil). Licensed to practice under CREFITO #170751.