Common Causes of Arm Pain

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on May 16, 2024
10 min read

Arm pain is usually described as pain, discomfort, or stiffness that occurs anywhere from your shoulders down to your wrist. Most often, it's caused by an injury or overuse. But there are many other health conditions that can cause your arm to hurt.

Arm pain could be related to arm muscles, tendons, cartilage, nerves, or bones. It could be sharp or dull, constant or occasional, alone or combined with other symptoms, like swelling or numbness. Sometimes the pain isn't actually from the arm, but it's referred or it radiates, meaning there is a problem in another part of your body -- your heart, for example -- but the pain refers down your arm.

 

Given that your arm has many parts to it, from your shoulder to your wrist, there could be a number of reasons why you have arm pain. It could be something serious or sometimes you can trace arm pain to a sports injury or simply using it too much. Here are some other possible causes.

Physical injuries

Physical arm injuries could happen if you fall while playing sports, running for the bus, or slipping on a wet floor. You can also injure your arm if you're in a car accident or by hyperextending (overextending) your elbow, which can happen if you fall or participate in sports like gymnastics or football.

Broken bones. If your arm starts to hurt right after a physical injury, you may have fractured it. You might also have swelling, bruising, numbness, or weakness. Seeing a doctor as soon as possible gives your arm the best chance of healing properly if it is broken. 

Strain or sprain. An injury can cause damage to your muscles (a strain) or your ligaments (a sprain). Symptoms include pain, swelling, bruising, weakness, and muscle spasms. Both conditions will usually heal on their own with self-care, but if your symptoms are severe, you should see your doctor as soon as possible.

Rotator cuff injury. Your rotator cuff is part of your shoulder and is made up of muscles and tendons. It allows your shoulder to move or stay in place. As we age, tendons in the rotator cuff begin to wear down or tear. If you have a job where you make overhead motions over and over, you can damage it, too. Symptoms of a rotator cuff injury range from a dull ache and weakness in your arm to severe, constant pain. If you suspect a rotator cuff injury, see your doctor. You may need physical therapy.

Hyperextension of the elbow. People who participate in some sports like gymnastics, yoga, or weight lifting can put a lot of pressure on their elbow. This can cause an overextension, or hyperextension, of the elbow. This injury can tear the tendons and ligaments around your elbow, causing pain and swelling.

Dislocated elbow or shoulder. Both the elbow and shoulder can be dislocated after a fall or a motor vehicle accident, and while playing sports. Children can develop what is called a nursemaid's elbow. Their elbow can become dislocated if an adult swings them by their hands. 

Herniated disk. Disks 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 (or herniates), it could cause a burning pain, numbness, weakness, and tingling or burning in your arms.

Heart problems

Pain in your arm, frequently the left, 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. A heart attack happens when the oxygen supply to part of your heart is cut off due to a blockage that prevents blood from flowing into the muscle.

If you're having a heart attack, your arm pain will probably come on suddenly.

You also may experience:

If you're having these symptoms, call 911. Do not drive yourself to the emergency department.This is dangerous as you could lose consciousness while driving.

Autoimmune diseases

Autoimmune diseases cause your body's natural defense system (immune system) to attack itself. Some of these -- like rheumatoid arthritislupus, and Sjogren's syndrome -- can cause pain in the neck, arms, elbows, wrists, and hands.

Other arm pain causes

Tendinitis. Tendinitis happens when the tendons in your shoulder or arm become inflamed. Those are bands of tissue that connect muscles to bones. One example of tendinitis is "tennis elbow." You could feel the pain in your shoulder, elbow, or wrist. It could be a result of an injury or--more often--overuse.

Carpal tunnel syndrome. Doing the same movements over and over with your wrist can cause damage to the main nerve in your hand. It can lead to numbness, tingling, weakness, and pain.

Frozen shoulder. A frozen shoulder is a very painful shoulder injury. Officially, it's called adhesive capsulitis. The connective tissue in the shoulder gets thick and becomes tight. This causes the shoulder joint to limit its movement, giving it the name frozen shoulder. However, it also can cause severe pain and it can take up to 2 years to fully heal.

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. A pinched nerve in your neck, called cervical radiculopathy, can cause a feeling of pins and needles or numbness, and it can make your arm weak. A pinched nerve can be caused by spine degeneration, which often occurs as you age, or by a herniated disk.

Bursitis. Bursitis happens when bursae, small fluid-filled sacs, become irritated and inflamed. Of the 3 most common joints where this occurs, 2 are in the arm: the elbow and shoulder. Elbow bursitis can be caused by trauma, conditions like arthritis, or leaning on your elbow for extended periods, or infection. Shoulder bursitis is usually caused by trauma or overusing the shoulder. It can also be caused by infections.

Osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis is often called the wear-and-tear arthritis because it most often affects joints that are used a lot, like your shoulder or elbow. The tissue that protects the bones in the joints, the cartilage, wears away over time. Eventually, the bones start to rub against each other and this can be quite painful.

What causes pain in arm for months?

Pain that lasts for 3 months or longer is usually called chronic pain. If your arm pain is caused by arthritis or an injury that hasn't healed properly, this can cause pain to last for months or longer.

Septic arthritis. Sometimes the inside of a joint can become infected. When this occurs, it's called septic arthritis. Such an infection can happen if bacteria from another part of your body travels to a joint or if you have a penetrating injury (an injury that causes a puncture or cut) to a joint. Septic arthritis can happen in a natural joint and also in artificial joints. 

Acute flaccid myelitis (AFM). Acute flaccid myelitis (AFM) is a neurological disease that affects your nerves. It is rare but serious. One of the symptoms is pain in the arms or legs.

Thoracic outlet syndrome. There are three types of thoracic outlet syndrome: neurogenic thoracic outlet syndrome, venous thoracic outlet syndrome, and arterial thoracic outlet syndrome. They affect the blood vessels and nerves in the thoracic outlet, the space between your neck and shoulder. The pressure on the blood vessels and nerves can cause arm pain.

Brachial plexus neuritis

When the nerves that go from your spinal cord to your chest, shoulders, arms, and hands are damaged, this causes a rare condition called brachial plexus neuritis. It is also called:

  • Brachial neuritis
  • Brachial plexus injury
  • Parsonage-turner syndrome
  • Neuralgic amyotrophy

The condition can cause pain in the upper arm or shoulder, usually on just one side. If brachial plexus neuritis isn't treated, the symptoms can worsen to weakness or paralysis.

Gallbladder diseases

Gallstones, stones that form in your gallbladder, can also cause pain in your shoulder or that goes down your right arm.

Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a condition that causes chronic, long-term pain that can affect different parts of the body all at the same time. The pain, which can be either a deep ache or a more intense stabbing or burning pain, can affect both arms.

It can be worrisome if you have arm pain and you're not sure if it is something serious like a heart attack or muscle pain because you overused your arm. 

Arm pain from a heart attack usually comes with other symptoms as well, including:

  • Pressure, squeezing, or pain in your chest
  • Pain that radiates to your back, jaw, or stomach
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling nauseated
  • Feeling lightheaded
  • Breaking out into a cold sweat

If you are ever worried that your arm pain might be related to having a heart attack, seek emergency help right away. Don't wait.

Does pain in the left arm always mean a heart attack?

Pain in your left arm could be a symptom of a heart attack, but it could also be caused by any number of reasons, like overuse or injury. So, no, pain in the left arm doesn't always mean a heart attack.

 

If you have arm pain along with other symptoms that suggest you might be having a heart attack, call 911, not your doctor. You may need emergency help and an ambulance to go to the hospital. 

Other emergencies where you should seek urgent care after hurting your arm include you:

  • Are bleeding heavily
  • Heard a snap or pop when you hurt it
  • See severe swelling and bruising
  • Have severe pain
  • Can't move your arm or hand, or you lose sensation to it
  • You see bone breaking through the skin
  • See your arm is at an unnatural angle

If you have arm pain not related to a heart attack, but you aren't sure if you should call your doctor, you should consider it if:

  • The pain increases with activity, gets better when you rest, and then worsens when you use it the same way again
  • The pain gets worse over time instead of better
  • You see swelling or redness

Your doctor may recommend splinting, physical therapy, or pain medications. If your doctor isn't sure what might be causing your arm pain, you might have to go for X-rays or other imaging tests, or you may be referred to an orthopedist or neurologist for further testing.

 

Most of the time, you can take care of arm pain at home, with self-care. Your could try the RICE regimen:

  • Rest your arm
  • Ice your arm
  • Compress the part of the arm that is painful with a bandage or a wrap
  • Elevate your arm to reduce swelling

You may also want to try:

  • Doing arm exercises, but it's best if they are recommended by a physical therapist 
  • Taking over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen

 

Arm pain can have many causes, ranging from very serious -- like a heart attack -- to simple explanations, like a fall. Most arm pain is caused by a trauma but if you have any other symptoms, such as shortness of breath and chest pain, you should call 911 immediately because it could be a heart attack. If you have arm pain that doesn't go away with self-care like resting and icing it, and taking over-the-counter medications, you should call your doctor. The pain might be caused by a condition that needs further treatment.

What part of your arm hurts with heart pain? Because arm pain radiates from the heart, the pain starts in the upper part of the arm and may radiate down. How far down it goes can vary. Pain radiating into your left arm may be a sign of a heart attack.

How long do arm aches last? Arm aches or arm pain can last just a few hours to months or years, depending on the cause. For example, if you bump your arm hard against a door, it can hurt for the rest of the day. If your pain is caused by arthritis, it becomes chronic pain, something that will always be present.

What causes pain in the right arm in women? There are a number of possible causes for pain in either arm, including issues with your nerves, tendons, bones, ligaments, and muscles. Your arm pain could also be brought on from neck and spinal problems.