Arm pain often occurs with shoulder and neck pain but each of these problems may alone. When occurring together, the term cervicobrachial pain is often used. The pains may be aching , stabbing, shooting, radiating, sharp or burning. The pain from this condition may radiate through the shoulder and into the arm, mimicking the warning signs of a heart attack.
Aggravating factors may be related to sports activities such as throwing a ball but may also occur with relatively sedentary activities as in working on a computer.
Conditions that cause arm pain may include carpal tunnel syndrome, ulnar nerve entrapment, tennis elbow, tendonitis, arthritis, bursitis and thoracic outlet syndrome and a pinched nerve in the neck (cervical radiculopathy). A particular form of shoulder pain and arm pain is brachial neuralgia which may occur spontaneously or may result from a virus or traumatic event.
While symptoms vary in type and intensity from person to person, there are some commonalities:
- A change in posture aggravates the pain, which often presents at night.
- The pain is accompanied by tightness and stiffness in the arm and shoulder.
- The patient will have problems lifting, stretching, or extending the arm.
- Violent, sharp pains sometimes likened to “lightning bolts” radiate toward the hand.
- Tingling or numbness is present with accompanying weakness.
Diagnosis and Treatment
A clinical examination is required with a detailed medical history and imaging tests like X-rays or MRIs to diagnosis any type of arm pain and the underlying conditions that are contributing to it. Pain in specific fingers, for instance, can indicate the compression of nerves adjacent to given vertebrae and discs in the neck.
Normally anti-inflammatory drugs, painkillers, and topical analgesics are used to manage pain and accompanying stiffness and tenderness. Bed rest may be indicated, along with heat application, gentle massage, and potentially light physical therapy. Since all cases are unique to the individual, treatment and management varies widely.
In many cases of arm pain, the complaint disappears when the underlying condition is addressed, for instance surgery to correct carpal tunnel syndrome. If the pain is due to brachial neuralgia, however, it can last for weeks or even months. A patient’s best course of action is to seek treatment early in the condition rather than “waiting for it to get better.”