Arm or elbow pain 

  • Overview

Introduction 

Tips for managing pain in your arm

  • Hold an ice pack (try frozen peas wrapped in a tea towel) to the arm for 15 to 20 minutes every few hours for the first couple of days.
  • Take over-the-counter painkillers such as ibuprofen to relieve the pain.
  • Keep your arm raised for as long as possible, for example by resting it on cushions. This will help reduce the swelling and pain.
  • Rest the arm.

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 and you don't know why, try caring for it at home using ice and over-the-counter painkillers (see the advice in the box on this page).

If the pain doesn't improve after several days, or if there's increasing redness, swelling or pain, see your GP.

See your GP immediately if:

  • your arm pain is brought on by exercise and relieved with rest, as it may be a sign of angina
  • you think you may have a broken arm

Call 999 for an ambulance if:

  • the pain has come on suddenly and your chest feels like it is being squeezed (you may be having a heart attack)
  • you have obviously broken your arm (it looks the wrong shape)

The information below should give you more of an idea of what might be wrong, although it shouldn't be used to self-diagnose your condition.

This page concentrates on pain that just affects the arm. It doesn't cover widespread pain that affects many areas, and shoulder pain is covered separately.

Common causes of arm pain

The most common causes of arm pain are:

These are explained below.

Simple sprain

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. Read more information about sprains and strains.

Avoid exercising the arm and care for it at home using painkillers and an ice pack (see box on this page for advice) until the pain goes away.

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, but will eventually get better. Read more information about treating tennis elbow.

Bursitis

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.

Most cases of bursitis can be successfully treated at home (see box with tips on managing pain) but some cases will be complicated by infections and may need antibiotics. The pain will usually improve within a few weeks, although the swelling may take longer to completely disappear. See the information on bursitis for more information.

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". In most cases, symptoms can be controlled using over-the-counter medication (such as ibuprofen or paracetamol) and exercise. Read more information about treating cervical spondylosis.

Angina

Angina is a heart condition caused when the blood supply to the muscles of the heart is restricted. It usually occurs when the arteries supplying the heart become hardened and narrowed.

Usually, angina causes a dull, heavy or tight pain in the chest that can sometimes spread to the left arm, neck, jaw or back. The pain is usually triggered by physical activity or stress and usually only lasts for a few minutes.

But sometimes, angina may only be felt as pain in the arm. This is why it's important to see your GP as soon as possible if your arm pain comes on after exercise and is relieved with rest. Angina is a serious warning sign that you have an increased risk of more serious conditions, such as a heart attack or stroke. Learn more about the symptoms of angina.

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.

Read more information about repetitive strain injury.

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. Read about tendonitis and tenosynovitis.
  • 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. Read about carpal tunnel syndrome.
  • cervical rib – this is having an extra rib above your normal top rib, which may cause pain, tingling or numbness in the arm. Read more about cervical rib.
  • 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). This usually appears slowly and often includes elbow stiffness.
  • broken or cracked bone, which will cause extreme pain and occur after a fall or blow to the arm – see our page on a broken arm for more information.



Page last reviewed: 05/01/2014

Next review due: 05/01/2016

Ratings

How helpful is this page?

Average rating

Based on 179 ratings

All ratings

Add your rating

Comments

Useful links

10 sure fire ways to beat pain

Practical ways to beat pain, including relaxation tips, breathing exercises and self management courses

Which painkiller?

The drugs you should take to treat pain depend on what type of pain you have