An injury of the skin, nerves, bones, joints, and soft tissues of the arm can all result in pain. Injuries or trauma to any part of the arm or shoulder, including bone fractures, joint dislocations, muscle strains and sprains, are common causes of arm pain. Sometimes diseases that affect other organs in the body, like peripheral vascular disease or arthritis, can be the cause of pain in the arm.

Arm pain can range from mild annoyances to severe and potentially life-threatening occurrences. Any lingering arm pain should be checked out by your doctor. If you have pain in your left arm, it could be related to a heart condition. Angina, which is caused by decreased blood flow to the heart, can cause pain in the shoulder. A heart attack can cause pain in one or both arms.

If you are currently experiencing chest pain, numbness, or weakness in the arm, go to an emergency center for immediate evaluation.

Other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder, or condition may accompany arm pain.

Ask yourself:

  • When did you first notice your symptoms?
  • What other symptoms are you experiencing?
  • Have you recently fallen or started any new medication?
  • Are your symptoms worsened or relieved by movement or specific activities?

Physical injury or overuse are common arm pain issues and typically easy to diagnose. Is there swelling, bleeding, bruising, difficulty moving the arm, shoulder or neck, warmth, or redness?  Even serious arm injuries can be helped initially with home treatment. If you think that you have a broken arm or wrist, apply ice packs to the affected area and use a sling to help hold your arm immobile until you can get medical care.

Other types of overuse arm pain will get better on its own, especially if you start R.I.C.E. measures soon after your injury. Here’s how.

  • Apply ice to the injury as soon as possible. Icing is most effective in the immediate period following an injury. After 48 hours, the effect of icing diminishes significantly.
  • Perform an ice massage. Apply ice directly to the injury. Move the ice frequently, not allowing it to sit in one spot.
  • Elevate the body part. Keep the injured body part elevated above the heart while icing — this will further help reduce swelling.
  • Watch the clock. Ice for 15-20 minutes, but never longer. You can cause further damage to the tissues, including frostbite, by icing for too long.
  • Allow time between treatments. Allow area to warm for at least 45 minutes or an hour before beginning the icing routine again. If the skin is bright pink, it is not ready for another icing.
  • Repeat as desired.

Ice as frequently as you wish, so long as the area is warm to touch and has normal sensation before repeating. However, if pain persists after 48 hours, or gets worse, be sure to see your doctor.

Ice or heat?

Use ice to treat acute (new) injuries that are accompanied by inflammation and swelling, such as sprains, strains, bruises and tendinitis.

Use heat for chronic (ongoing), non-inflammatory pain or stiffness, such as from arthritis, fibromyalgia, back or neck pain.

Notable exception: heat works wonders for the acute muscle soreness that you get from overexertion, such as when you’re in pain from lifting heavy boxes or trying a new workout.

Reminder:  If any of these conditions are new or don’t resolve quickly, be sure to contact your health care provider for more treatment options.

If you can’t trace your arm pain to physical injury or overuse. It could be caused by stress, a new medication, or another medical condition, such as:

Pinched nerve: This happens when bones or tissues in your shoulder, neck, or elbow press against and compress a nerve. It causes pain, numbness, weakness, and tingling.

Herniated disk: These are little cushions between the hard bones (vertebrae) that make up your spine. They allow your back to flex or bend. If one of the disks in your neck ruptures, it could cause a burning pain, numbness, weakness, and tingling or burning in your arms.

Autoimmune diseases: If you have one of these conditions, your body’s natural defense system (immune system) attacks itself. Some of these — like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and Sjogren’s syndrome — can cause pain in the neck, arms, elbows, wrists, and hands.  

Inflammation, including inflammation related to infection, can cause either local or diffuse arm symptoms including bursitis, osteoarthritis, tendonitis, and vasculitis

There are other conditions that affect the muscles or nerves in the body and can produce arm symptoms. These conditions can be more serious including: muscular weakness, rigidity, loss of muscular control, numbness, tingling, twitching, spasms, and tremor. See your doctor if you have any of these symptoms.