Arm Pain

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Woman holding her arm, possibly in pain

Arm pain is a problem that can arise from many underlying causes. These can range from joint injuries (e.g. the elbow or shoulder) to a compressed nerve due to spinal stenosis.

Because of the wide range of underlying causes, there are also differences in the type of pain experienced. In some cases , the pain can start without warning and in others it can gradually build up over time.

Some types of arm pain can  be a sign of a serious problem such as a heart attack. It is therefore useful to be aware of the most common types of arm pain and what they might mean. In this article, we set out to provide this guidance.

Types Of Arm Pain & Possible Causes

Heart Attack Or Angina

If your pain is in your left arm, it may be due to a heart problem such as angina. This is a condition that is caused by a decrease in the blood flow to the heart.

However, arm pain can also be a sign of a heart attack. In this case, the pain can be in either or both arms.

Heart attack pain is most likely to arise suddenly instead of gradually increasing over a long time. Besides arm pain, heart attack symptoms include chest pain or pressure, difficulty breathing due to shortness of breath, nausea and dizziness.

If you think your arm pain may be due to a heart attack or angina, you should call 911 immediately. This is a medical emergency that demands urgent attention.

Other Reasons For Arm Pain

Besides heart trouble, arm pain can be a signal of many other diseases or injuries.

Fractured Arm

This will usually cause a sharp pain that will occur right after an accident or fall that causes an arm injury. Accompanying symptoms are likely to be swelling of the arm and bruising. The arm or shoulder may appear mis-shapen or out of line. Depending on the severity of the arm fracture, a portion of the damaged bone may also pierce the skin and be visible to the naked eye.

In addition, the affected individual will probably experience arm or shoulder numbness or weakness.

If you think your arm pain is due to a fracture, see a doctor at the first opportunity. This is not an immediately  life threatening situation (as would be a heart attack) but it does demand urgent medical attention.

Muscle Strain Or Ligament Sprain

Arm pain may also be the result of a sprain or strain due to damage to shoulder, arm or elbow soft tissues. Examples may be a bicep strain or a sprained elbow.

In addition to pain, you will likely experience pain, bruising, swelling and loss of arm strength or range of motion. In the case of a strain, there may also be muscle spasms.

If the symptoms accompanying arm pain resemble those of a strain or sprain, consult with your doctor for further advice. In most cases, the recommended treatment will be a period of rest for the arm, together with cold therapy/icing, compression and elevation.

An orthopedic brace or athletic tape can help to protect the injured muscle, ligament or tendon. Physical therapy exercises to stretch and strengthen the injured muscles or tendons will help to assure a full recovery.

Shoulder Or Elbow Tendinitis

Tendinitis (or tendonitis) is the result of tendons (in this case, those of the elbow or shoulder) becoming irritated or inflamed. Together with pain in the affected joint, there is likely to be tenderness, swelling and reduced range of motion.

Tennis elbow is a type of tendonitis involving the tendons of the outer elbow and is an extremely common source of arm pain.

Rotator cuff injuries involve the muscles and tendons of the rotator cuff at the junction of the arm and shoulder. These injuries are one of the more common types of tendonitis that affect the arm and shoulder. The shoulder pain is usually accompanied by weakness, lost range of shoulder motion and difficulty holding the arm over the head.

A doctor can provide an accurate diagnosis confirming the presence of tendinitis.

However, the treatment is likely to be similar to that  of sprains or strains. Doctors will likely recommend resting the damaged tendons. Icing, compression and elevation are also likely to be suggested.

Physical therapy and a shoulder support or arm sling are also useful in speeding recovery.

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

This is one of the most common causes of arm pain. It is a repetitive stress injury due to repeated movements with the wrist and hand. These movements can eventually lead to a narrowing of the carpal tunnel at the base of the hand and pinching of the nerve that passes through it.

In addition to wrist pain, especially after waking up, people with carpal tunnel syndrome may complain of wrist stiffness and difficulty opening their hands.

Once again, a doctor can provide an accurate diagnosis of carpal tunnel syndrome.Treatment may involve using pain relief medication, icing the wrist and wearing a wrist splint at night. Physical therapy exercises to reduce wrist stiffness are also likely to be suggested.

If these remedies do not ease the symptoms, surgery may be performed to increase the room in the carpal tunnel.

Pinched Nerves

Arm pain can also be the result of a pinched nerve in the neck, elbow or shoulder. In some cases, it could also be a result of a pinched nerve in the cervical spine area. This in turn could be a result of a herniated disc or spinal stenosis.

Pain due to a pinched nerve may be accompanied by numbness, tingling or even weakness in the arm.

The appropriate step is to see a doctor for a diagnosis and medical advice.The treatments recommended can vary from simple use of pain relief medication and rest to surgery.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

This is one of a number of auto immune diseases that can cause chronic pain in the arm and specifically in the wrist, elbow or shoulder. It is caused when the body’s immune system becomes over aggressive and attacks and destroys joint linings. Rheumatoid arthritis  joint pain may be accompanied by joint stiffness, redness, tenderness and swelling, with large amounts of inflammation.

Doctors can prescribe drugs to reduce pain, including non steroidal anti inflammatory medications. Other medications that suppress the immune system are also available. Corticosteroid injections into the joint can be tried to directly combat inflammation.

Having said this, there is no fundamental cure for arthritis of any form. Instead, doctors will try to reduce the severity of the symptoms and slow the rate of progression of the disease.

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