Arm pain: causes, treatment and when to see a doctor

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People often experience arm pain on the outside of the shoulder. Sometimes it can move more towards the elbow . Causes of hand pain include overexertion injuries, injuries, and conditions in other parts of the body.

This article explains the causes, diagnosis, and treatment of arm pain.

Get Medical Information / Alexandra Gordon

Causes

Arm pain falls into three main categories: overuse, trauma, and pain that spreads to the arm from elsewhere.

Conditions of excessive use

Overuse conditions are those that result from repeated use. They include:

  • Bursitis : In this condition, inflammation occurs in a fluid-filled sac between the bones, muscles, and tendons. This is the most common cause of arm and shoulder pain.
  • Tendinitis : In this condition, inflammation occurs around the tendon, the ligament of tissue that connects muscle to bone. In the hand, tendinitis usually occurs in the shoulder.
  • Rotator cuff tears : In this condition, people often complain of severe pain on the outside of the arm. The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that surround the shoulder joint. The pain usually occurs when the arm is raised above the head. Nighttime pain can be severe enough to wake you up, especially when you're uncomfortable asleep.
  • Tennis elbow : This condition occurs when the tendons on the outside of the elbow are irritated. Most of this pain occurs in the lower arm.

A rotator cuff is commonly considered a shoulder problem. However, the pain experienced by people with tendonitis, bursitis, or rotator cuff tears is often felt lower down the arm.

Traumatic conditions

Various traumatic conditions can cause arm pain. This includes:

  • Fractures – If you recently fell or suffered another serious injury and your arm hurts, your healthcare provider should consider breaking a bone. Fractures can occur around the shoulder joint or the humerus (large bone in the shoulder).
  • Dislocation : When the shoulder or elbow is dislocated, or "pops out of a joint," it can cause severe pain in the arm. Dislocated shoulder and dislocated elbow occur when the joints move out of their normal position.
  • Muscle bruises – A bruise (deep bruise) is a common sports injury that can lead to arm pain. This injury causes bruising, swelling, and sometimes scar tissue in the muscles.

Other sources of hand pain

Certain conditions in other parts of the body can cause so-called radiation symptoms. This means that the pain is not felt where it was caused. You may experience arm pain when the source of the problem is elsewhere in your body.

The most dangerous of possible radiation symptoms is angina or a heart attack . Sometimes people with heart problems will experience pain that radiates down the arm.

Other sources of radiant pain include:

Summary

Overuse injuries, trauma, or pain to other parts of the body can lead to arm pain. Since radiating arm pain can indicate heart disease, it is always wise to seek a diagnosis if you experience arm pain without an injury or known cause.

When to contact a healthcare provider

You can treat many of the causes of arm pain with simple treatments. However, there are signs that you need to see a doctor urgently.

Some of the signs of a more serious source of arm pain include:

  • Chest pain or pressure, symptoms of a heart attack .
  • A sudden injury that causes severe pain or deformity, indicating a possible fracture or dislocation.
  • Severe pain that does not go away with simple treatment.
  • Swelling or redness that gets worse.

Diagnostics

Your healthcare provider will make a diagnosis by carefully examining your medical history. Understanding your symptoms can help your doctor determine if the source is from your hand or another location on your body.

In addition to a physical exam of the cervical spine, shoulder, and elbow, imaging tests can help determine the cause of pain. The visualization can include:

There may be situations where other tests, such as laboratory tests or EKGs , can help guide treatment options. For example, additional tests may be helpful if your healthcare provider suspects that the source of the problem is elsewhere in the body.

Watch out

As with any disease, treatment depends on the underlying cause.

For the most common causes of excessive hand pain, some simple treatments include:

  • Rest : It can be helpful to avoid lifting, pushing, or deadlifting. Wearing a sling can provide support and also a reminder to rest your arm.
  • Ice – Applying ice to the shoulder and arm can help prevent and reduce swelling, as well as relieve pain.
  • Anti-inflammatory drugs : Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are effective in reducing inflammation and pain. These medications can have possible side effects, so you should take them under medical supervision.
  • Physical Therapy – Working with a qualified physical therapist can help ease arm pain due to injury.
  • Cortisone Injections: Steroid injections are powerful anti-inflammatory medications that are given directly to the place where you feel pain. They are generally safe and the side effects are usually minor. The relief they offer can last up to several weeks.
  • Surgery Healthcare providers may perform surgery if simpler treatments do not provide adequate relief. Surgery can effectively repair rotator cuff tears , relieve inflammation around the shoulder, and heal arm fractures.

Summary

Many things can cause arm pain. However, they are often included in the categories of overuse injury, traumatic injury, or pain to other parts of the body.

Diagnoses may include a physical exam and certain imaging tests. Treatment depends on the cause, but often includes rest, ice, and anti-inflammatory medications. For more complex or persistent conditions, physical therapy, cortisone injections, or surgery can help.

Get the word of drug information

While simple treatments are often effective in treating arm pain, it is important to find the correct cause. This way, you can be sure that the treatment is right for your condition.

Also, there are some serious diseases, especially heart conditions, associated with arm pain. So if you have severe arm pain without a known injury, be sure to see your healthcare provider right away.

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