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Minor arm problems, such as sore muscles, are common. Symptoms often develop from everyday wear and tear or overuse. Arm problems may be minor or serious and may include symptoms such as pain, swelling, cramps, numbness, tingling, weakness, or changes in temperature or color.
Older adults have a greater chance of having arm problems, because they lose muscle mass as they age. Children may have arm problems because they are usually more active than adults and their bones and muscles are growing more quickly. They may also have arm problems for the same reasons as adults.
Your arm problem may be caused by sports or hobbies, work-related tasks, and work or projects around the home. Arm problems can also be caused by injuries. If you think your arm problem is caused by an injury, see the topic Arm Injuries.
It may be helpful to know the structure of the arm to better understand arm problems. Common arm problems that are not caused by a specific injury, such as a blow or fall, include the following:
- Overuse or repetitive-motion injuries occur when you "overdo" an activity or repeat the same activity. The repeated activity may stress joints or other tissues and cause pain and swelling. This is called an overuse injury, even though no obvious injury occurred. For example, you may have shoulder pain from throwing a ball or raking leaves. Overuse injuries include bursitis or tendinitis. Carpal tunnel syndrome is another example of an overuse injury.
- Joint pain, stiffness, and swelling are common with arthritis. Osteoarthritis (also called degenerative joint disease) is the most common type of arthritis. Less common types include rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
- Swelling of the hands and arms can be caused by hormone changes, such as those that occur during pregnancy or with premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
- Swelling may also occur after surgery to remove the lymph nodes under the arm following a diagnosis of breast cancer or melanoma. This is called lymphedema.
- Arm problems can occur as symptoms of other more serious problems, such as heart attack, transient ischemic attack (TIA), or stroke. Sometimes the first symptom of a heart attack is pain in the left arm.
Most minor arm problems will usually get better on their own. Home treatment may be all that is needed to relieve symptoms and promote healing.
Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.
Check Your Symptoms
The medical assessment of symptoms is based on the body parts you have.
- If you are transgender or nonbinary, choose the sex that matches the body parts (such as ovaries, testes, prostate, breasts, penis, or vagina) you now have in the area where you are having symptoms.
- If your symptoms aren’t related to those organs, you can choose the gender you identify with.
- If you have some organs of both sexes, you may need to go through this triage tool twice (once as "male" and once as "female"). This will make sure that the tool asks the right questions for you.
Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:
- Your age. Babies and older adults tend to get sicker quicker.
- Your overall health. If you have a condition such as diabetes, HIV, cancer, or heart disease, you may need to pay closer attention to certain symptoms and seek care sooner.
- Medicines you take. Certain medicines, herbal remedies, and supplements can cause symptoms or make them worse.
- Recent health events, such as surgery or injury. These kinds of events can cause symptoms afterwards or make them more serious.
- Your health habits and lifestyle, such as eating and exercise habits, smoking, alcohol or drug use, sexual history, and travel.
Try Home Treatment
You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be able to take care of this problem at home.
- Try home treatment to relieve the symptoms.
- Call your doctor if symptoms get worse or you have any concerns (for example, if symptoms are not getting better as you would expect). You may need care sooner.
Symptoms of infection may include:
- Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness in or around the area.
- Red streaks leading from the area.
- Pus draining from the area.
- A fever.
Certain health conditions and medicines weaken the immune system's ability to fight off infection and illness. Some examples in adults are:
- Diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and HIV/AIDS.
- Long-term alcohol and drug problems.
- Steroid medicines, which may be used to treat a variety of conditions.
- Chemotherapy and radiation therapy for cancer.
- Other medicines used to treat autoimmune disease.
- Medicines taken after organ transplant.
- Not having a spleen.
Pain in children under 3 years
It can be hard to tell how much pain a baby or toddler is in.
- Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain is so bad that the baby cannot sleep, cannot get comfortable, and cries constantly no matter what you do. The baby may kick, make fists, or grimace.
- Moderate pain (5 to 7): The baby is very fussy, clings to you a lot, and may have trouble sleeping but responds when you try to comfort him or her.
- Mild pain (1 to 4): The baby is a little fussy and clings to you a little but responds when you try to comfort him or her.
Pain in children 3 years and older
- Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain is so bad that the child can't stand it for more than a few hours, can't sleep, and can't do anything else except focus on the pain. No one can tolerate severe pain for more than a few hours.
- Moderate pain (5 to 7): The pain is bad enough to disrupt the child's normal activities and sleep, but the child can tolerate it for hours or days.
- Mild pain (1 to 4): The child notices and may complain of the pain, but it is not bad enough to disrupt his or her sleep or activities.
Pain in adults and older children
- Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain is so bad that you can't stand it for more than a few hours, can't sleep, and can't do anything else except focus on the pain.
- Moderate pain (5 to 7): The pain is bad enough to disrupt your normal activities and your sleep, but you can tolerate it for hours or days. Moderate can also mean pain that comes and goes even if it's severe when it's there.
- Mild pain (1 to 4): You notice the pain, but it is not bad enough to disrupt your sleep or activities.
Symptoms of a heart attack may include:
- Chest pain or pressure, or a strange feeling in the chest.
- Shortness of breath.
- Nausea or vomiting.
- Pain, pressure, or a strange feeling in the back, neck, jaw, or upper belly, or in one or both shoulders or arms.
- Lightheadedness or sudden weakness.
- A fast or irregular heartbeat.
The more of these symptoms you have, the more likely it is that you're having a heart attack. Chest pain or pressure is the most common symptom, but some people, especially women, may not notice it as much as other symptoms. You may not have chest pain at all but instead have shortness of breath, nausea, or a strange feeling in your chest or other areas.
When an area turns blue, very pale, or cold, it can mean that there has been a sudden change in the blood supply to the area. This can be serious.
There are other reasons for color and temperature changes. Bruises often look blue. A limb may turn blue or pale if you leave it in one position for too long, but its normal color returns after you move it. What you are looking for is a change in how the area looks (it turns blue or pale) and feels (it becomes cold to the touch), and this change does not go away.
Seek Care Now
Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.
- Call your doctor now to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
- If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care in the next hour.
- You do not need to call an ambulance unless:
- You cannot travel safely either by driving yourself or by having someone else drive you.
- You are in an area where heavy traffic or other problems may slow you down.
Call 911 Now
Based on your answers, you need emergency care.
Call 911 or other emergency services now.
After you call 911 , the operator may tell you to chew 1 adult-strength (325 mg) or 2 to 4 low-dose (81 mg) aspirin. Wait for an ambulance. Do not try to drive yourself.
Sometimes people don't want to call 911 . They may think that their symptoms aren't serious or that they can just get someone else to drive them. Or they might be concerned about the cost. But based on your answers, the safest and quickest way for you to get the care you need is to call 911 for medical transport to the hospital.
Seek Care Today
Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The problem probably will not get better without medical care.
- Call your doctor today to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
- If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care today.
- If it is evening, watch the symptoms and seek care in the morning.
- If the symptoms get worse, seek care sooner.
Call 911 Now
Based on your answers, you need emergency care.
Call 911 or other emergency services now.
Sometimes people don't want to call 911. They may think that their symptoms aren't serious or that they can just get someone else to drive them. Or they might be concerned about the cost. But based on your answers, the safest and quickest way for you to get the care you need is to call 911 for medical transport to the hospital.
Make an Appointment
Based on your answers, the problem may not improve without medical care.
- Make an appointment to see your doctor in the next 1 to 2 weeks.
- If appropriate, try home treatment while you are waiting for the appointment.
- If symptoms get worse or you have any concerns, call your doctor. You may need care sooner.
If your arm problem does not require an evaluation by a doctor, you may be able to use home treatment to help relieve pain, swelling, stiffness, or muscle cramps.
Home treatment for arm pain, swelling, or stiffness
- Rest and protect a stiff or sore area. Stop, change, or take a break from any activity that may be causing your pain or soreness.
- Ice will reduce pain and swelling. Apply ice or cold packs immediately to prevent or minimize swelling. Apply the ice or cold pack for 10 to 20 minutes, 3 or more times a day.
- For the first 48 hours, avoid things that might increase swelling, such as hot showers, hot tubs, hot packs, and alcoholic beverages.
- After 48 to 72 hours, if swelling is gone, apply heat and begin gentle exercise with the aid of moist heat to help restore and maintain flexibility. Some experts recommend alternating between heat and cold treatments.
- Compression, or wrapping the sore area with an elastic bandage (such as an Ace wrap), will help decrease swelling. Don't wrap it too tightly, since this can cause more swelling below the affected area. Loosen the bandage if it gets too tight. Signs that the bandage is too tight include numbness, tingling, increased pain, coolness, or swelling in the area below the bandage. Talk to your doctor if you think you need to use a wrap for longer than 48 to 72 hours; a more serious problem may be present.
- Elevate the painful area on pillows while applying ice and anytime you are sitting or lying down. Try to keep the area at or above the level of your heart to help minimize swelling.
- Remove rings, bracelets, watches, or any other jewelry from your hand and arm. It will be more difficult to remove the jewelry later if swelling increases. Swelling without removal of jewelry can cause other serious problems, such as compression of nerves or restriction of blood flow.
- Wear a sling if it makes you more comfortable and supports the area. If you feel you need to use a sling for more than 48 hours, discuss your symptoms with your doctor.
- Gently massage or rub the area to relieve pain and encourage blood flow. Do not massage the area if it causes pain.
- Do not smoke or use other tobacco products. Smoking slows healing because it decreases blood supply and delays tissue repair. For more information, see the topic Quitting Smoking.
Home treatment for muscle cramps
- Gently stretch the cramping muscle.
- If you do not have swelling, you may rub or gently massage the cramp.
- If you think your muscle cramps are brought on by exercise, heat, or dehydration, drink some extra water. If available, drink an electrolyte replacement drink (such as Gatorade or Pedialyte) diluted with water to half strength. These drinks will help replace sugar, salt, and other minerals. Be sure to read and follow any label warnings. Avoid drinks that contain caffeine or alcohol.
- Move your arms and flex your fingers and hands. Gentle motion may help with cramps brought on by exercise.
- Make sure you are getting enough minerals such as calcium and magnesium. Most people get enough minerals eating a normal variety of foods. Talk with your doctor about taking extra calcium.
Try a nonprescription medicine to help treat your fever or pain:
Talk to your child's doctor before switching back and forth between doses of acetaminophen and ibuprofen. When you switch between two medicines, there is a chance your child will get too much medicine.
Be sure to follow these safety tips when you use a nonprescription medicine:
Symptoms to watch for during home treatment
Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:
- You are unable to use your arm normally.
- Signs of infection develop.
- Numbness; tingling; or cool, pale skin develops.
- Symptoms become more frequent or more severe.
The following tips may prevent arm problems.
General prevention tips
- Warm up well and stretch before any activity. Stretch after exercise to keep hot muscles from shortening and cramping.
- Drink extra water before and during exercise, or drink an electrolyte replacement drink (such as a sports drink) after exercise, especially during hot or humid weather.
- Use the correct movements and positions during activities so that you do not strain your muscles.
- Use equipment that is right for your size, strength, and ability.
- Try not to overuse your arm doing repeated movements that can cause an injury. In your daily routines or when doing hobbies, think about how often you make repeated arm movements. Try to find other ways of using your arms.
- Take lessons to learn how to do sports correctly. Have a trainer or person who is familiar with the sport check your gear to make sure it is right for your level of ability, body size, and body strength.
- If you think that something you do at work is causing pain or soreness from overuse, call your human resources department for information on other ways of doing your job or to discuss equipment modifications or other job assignments.
Keep bones strong
- Eat healthy foods such as milk, cheese, yogurt, and dark green, leafy vegetables like broccoli. For more information, see the topic Healthy Eating.
- Exercise and stay active. Talk to your doctor about an exercise program that is right for you. Begin slowly, especially if you have been inactive. For more information, see the topic Fitness.
- Don't drink more than 2 alcoholic drinks a day if you are a man, or 1 alcoholic drink a day if you are a woman. Drinking alcohol increases your chances of having weak bones (osteoporosis). It also increases your chances of falling.
- Do not smoke or use other tobacco products. Smoking increases your chances of having osteoporosis. It also causes problems with the blood supply in your arms and slows healing. For more information, see the topic Quitting Smoking.
Preparing For Your Appointment
To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:
- What are your main symptoms?
- How long have you had your symptoms?
- When did you first notice your symptoms? What were you doing when the symptoms started?
- Have you had a problem like this before? When? How was it treated? Did the problem go away completely, or do you have ongoing problems?
- Does anyone else in your family have a problem like this?
- What activities, related to sports, work, or your lifestyle, make your symptoms better or worse?
- Do you think that activities related to your job or hobbies caused your symptoms?
- What home treatment have you tried? Did it help?
- What prescription and nonprescription medicines have you tried? Did they help?
- Do you use alcohol or illegal drugs to make your arm feel better?
- Do you have any health risks?
Current as of: June 26, 2019
Author: Healthwise Staff
William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine