Arm Pain: Seek Medical Care or Self-Treat?


What is arm pain?

Arm pain involves stiffness, discomfort, swelling, soreness or pain that occurs anywhere from the shoulder to the fingers. Oftentimes, it results from overuse, injury or inflammation. However, arm pain can also be caused by various health conditions.


Arm pain can be mild or severe and can develop suddenly or gradually. The symptoms of arm pain are dependent upon the cause. Symptoms include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Itching
  • Redness
  • Bruising
  • Tingling
  • Numbness
  • Weakness
  • Limited range of motion
  • Swelling
  • Stiffness
  • Swollen lymph nodes under the armpit
  • Tenderness

When to seek immediate medical attention

Arm pain can be a symptom of a serious condition. Seek immediate medical attention for the following:

  • A heart attack can cause arm, shoulder or back pain that occurs suddenly or is severe. It is often accompanied by pressure, fullness or squeezing in the chest and may cause difficulty breathing.
  • A protruding bone or an obvious deformity can occur due to an injury.
  • Refractory angina pectoris (RAP) can cause arm or shoulder pain due to decreased blood flow to the heart.

When to schedule a physician’s appointment

Conditions that require an appointment with a health care professional include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • An autoimmune disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, can cause arm pain.
  • A herniated disc can cause pain, burning, weakness or numbness in the arm.
  • A pinched nerve can result in pain, tingling, numbness or weakness in the arm.
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome can cause numbness, pain and tingling in the wrist.
  • A rotator cuff tear or injury can result in constant pain and weakness in the arm and shoulder.
  • Tendinitis can result from inflamed tendons in the shoulder or arm.
  • Tennis elbow, or lateral epicondylitis, can lead to pain, tenderness, or limited motion in the elbow or forearm.
  • Frozen shoulder, or adhesive capsulitis, occurs due to thickened connective tissue and inflammation around the shoulder joint, which results in pain and limited range of motion.
  • Deep vein thrombosis occurs when a blood clot forms in a deep vein of the arm. It can cause swelling, extreme pain, and weakness.
  • Thoracic outlet syndrome causes numbness or tingling in the arm or fingers, pain in the neck, shoulder, arm or hand, and a weakened grip.

When to treat at home

Arm pain may be the result of an injury that causes a strain or sprain to a muscle or ligament. It may result from repetitive movements. Everyday activities, such as computer work, sports, heavy lifting, exercising, or working with tools, can also cause arm pain. At-home treatment may also be appropriate for these conditions, or when used in conjunction with medical treatments. At-home treatment includes, but is not limited to, the following:

  • Rest the arm and avoid strenuous movement.
  • Ice the painful area for 20 minutes at a time to reduce swelling and inflammation. Wait at least an hour between icing sessions.
  • Compression bandages can ease swelling.
  • Elevate the arm to reduce swelling.
  • Over-the-counter medications, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, can reduce inflammation and pain.

Risk factors

Certain factors increase the risk of developing arm pain. They include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Female
  • Thyroid problems
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Pregnancy
  • Overuse
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