Arm pain is common and usually happens after an injury or fall. Occasionally, it can be a sign of an underlying condition.
If your arm has suddenly started hurting if the pain doesn’t improve after several days, or if there’s increasing redness, swelling or pain, see a doctor.
See a doctor immediately if you think you may have a broken arm, the arm is deformed (looks the wrong shape).
Common causes of arm pain
The most common causes of arm pain are:
- a simple sprain
- tennis elbow or golfer’s elbow (known medically as epicondylitis)
- a squashed or trapped nerve
- repetitive strain injury (RSI)
If you think your pain has resulted from doing more activity than you’re used to, you’ve probably just sprained your arm. This means that the arm tissues have stretched, but are not permanently damaged.
Tennis elbow or golfer’s elbow
Tennis elbow is a condition that results in pain around the outside of the elbow. It often occurs after strenuous overuse of the muscles and tendons near the elbow joint, for example after playing tennis.
The medical name for tennis elbow is lateral epicondylitis. This is because the pain is usually felt around the bony lump on the outside of the elbow, known as the lateral epicondyle. Pain can also occur on the inner side of the elbow, which is known as golfer’s elbow.
The pain caused by tennis elbow or golfer’s elbow can last for several weeks or months.
Repetitive movement of the arm can cause a build-up of fluid over the elbow joint, known as olecranon bursitis (the olecranon is the bony tip of the elbow). This results in pain and swelling.
Squashed or trapped nerve
Sometimes, the general “wear and tear” that occurs in the joints and bones of the spine as people get older can cause the nerves in the spinal cord to become squashed or trapped. It can cause pain that radiates from the neck to the arms, and sometimes also pins and needles.
This type of wear and tear is called spinal arthritis, or cervical spondylosis.
Arm pain caused by cervical spondylosis varies from person to person, but it is typical to have “good days” and “bad days”.
Repetitive strain injury (RSI)
Repetitive strain injury, also known as work-related upper limb disorder, may be diagnosed if your arm or elbow pain seems to be caused by a repetitive task and then fades when the task is stopped.
There are two types of repetitive strain injury, type 1 and type 2. Type 1 is when a doctor can diagnose a recognised medical condition, such as bursitis or tendonitis.
Type 2 RSI is when there are no symptoms other than pain, and is also known as non-specific pain syndrome.
Less common causes of arm pain
Less commonly, arm pain may be caused by one of the following conditions or injuries:
- de Quervain’s tenosynovitis, which is inflammation of the tendons on the inside of the wrist.
- carpal tunnel syndrome, which is pressure on the nerve that controls sensation and movement in your hand. It usually causes pain and a burning feeling in the hand and fingers.
- cervical rib – this is having an extra rib above your normal top rib, which may cause pain, tingling or numbness in the arm.
- inflammation of the nerves in the arm, known medically as brachial and ulnar neuritis (this pain may occur after shingles).
- damaging the nerves connecting the spine and the arm, known as a brachial plexus injury. This can be caused by over-stretching the arm or shoulder and most often occurs due to contact sports or a motor vehicle accident.
- arthritis of the elbow, which can cause the elbow joint to become inflamed (swollen, warm and painful).
- broken or cracked bone, which will cause extreme pain and occur after a fall or blow to the arm.