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Arm and elbow pain is very common and can result from a fall or injury or from an underlying condition. Arm pain is usually not serious, and can often be treated at home. However, if you are at all concerned, it’s always wise to consult your GP who will be able to assess you and refer you for further treatment if required.
In many cases, arm or elbow pain can be managed at home with painkillers and rest. If you think that the cause of the pain is not serious, following the RICE (Rest, ice, compression, elevation) protocol should help. Rest your arm and place an ice pack on the painful area and try to keep your arm elevated - do this every 2- 3 hours for a few days. Take paracetamol and ibuprofen to relieve the pain and help with the swelling.
When to see your GP:
When to call an ambulance:
There are a wide variety of causes of arm pain, many of which are very common, including sprains, tennis elbow or golfer’s elbow, a trapped nerve, bursitis, and angina. These conditions are detailed below.
A sprain is the result of too much force being placed on a muscle. For example an overstretch or increase in activity. The tissues in the arm experience stretching, twisting or tearing that causes pain, which can range from mild to severe, but does not result in permanent damage. Use the RICE method of treatment at home with painkillers until the pain has gone. If the sprain is severe and does not go after a few days a doctor may recommend wearing a support or undergoing some physiotherapy.
The fluid filled sac around the tip of the elbow joint is called the bursae, and this is where your bones meet tendons, skin and muscle. Repetitive movement, or an injury to the area can result in the build-up of fluid and cause pain and inflammation, and sometimes infection, known as bursitis. Using the RICE method may help to relieve the symptoms, but if you suspect the area is infected you should visit your GP as you may require antibiotics. This condition usually improves over a few weeks of rest, but can become chronic and occur on a regular basis.
Tennis and golfer’s elbow are common causes of arm pain. A type of repetitive strain injury, the pain tends to centre around the inside or outside of the elbow. It occurs after the vigorous repeated use of tendons and muscles around the elbow, which can happen whilst playing tennis or golf. But it can also materialise as a result of other activities that put repeated strain on the elbow joint, for example plasterers or carpenters can often experience this type of injury. Typically, pain will be felt from the elbow through the forearm and into the wrist and increases when lifting or squeezing something (for example when opening a jar or using tools).
Simple treatment is successful in around 80 per cent of cases and involves rest, ice packs, anti-inflammatory medication, physiotherapy, and in more serious cases steroid injections to reduce swelling. If these treatments are unsuccessful after 12 months, it is possible that surgery may be required to remove the dead tissue and reattach healthy tissue to the bone.
This kind of elbow pain can be prevented by using the right equipment and techniques for the sport or task and by carrying out regular exercises to build flexibility and strength in the arm.
As a person gets older, general wear and tear on the joints in the bones of the spine can result in the nerves in the spinal cord becoming trapped or squashed. Known as cervical spondylosis or spinal arthritis, it can lead to neck and arm pain, as well as pins and needles. The pain tends to come and go and can usually be managed with over the counter anti-inflammatory and pain relieving medication and exercise.
Squashed nerves can also occur as a result of swelling in the wrist, known as carpal tunnel syndrome. Commonly this swelling is caused by an underlying medical condition such as thyroid dysfunction, diabetes, high blood pressure, fluid retention, arthritis or a trauma to the wrist. The problem is made worse by repetitive movements in the wrist, such as typing or poor positioning of the hands using a computer.
Treatment involves addressing any underlying conditions, pain and inflammation-relieving medication, wrist supports and avoiding positions that put too much strain on the wrist. In more extreme cases, surgery is an option.
Arm pain can be caused by angina, a heart condition that involves the flow of blood to the heart becoming restricted. Symptoms usually involve a heavy or tight pain in the chest, which can spread into the left side of the neck, and the left shoulder and arm. However, it can occasionally be felt only in the arm. Usually it lasts for just a few minutes and is triggered by activity and relieved at rest.
If you experience these symptoms you should visit your GP as soon as possible as angina can be a warning sign of something even more serious such as a stroke or heart attack. Angina itself can be treated with medication and lifestyle changes, such as improved diet, increased exercise and ceasing smoking.
There are many less common causes of arm and elbow pain, a few of which are outlined below:
The tendons on the inside of the wrist become inflamed causing pain, swelling, weakness or stiffness. Mild cases can be treated with rest and over the counter medication, but if the pain fails to go after a few weeks or you suspect your tendon has ruptured (this usually causes a sudden severe pain that dulls with time), you should see your GP.
Usually caused by a fall onto or blow to the arm, a fractured, or broken, arm requires immediate medical attention.
Arthritis in the elbow can result in pain as well as swelling and stiffness. Although there is no cure, it can be managed to some extent with medication and exercise.
Known as a ‘brachial plexus injury’, damage can occur to the nerves connecting the arm and spine as a result of over stretching, commonly during sport or a car accident.
As outlined here, arm and elbow pain can be brought on by a number of causes. In many cases, the pain can be managed with rest, ice, painkillers and anti-inflammatories at home, but if you suspect there is a more serious underlying cause, or the pain does not go away or becomes worse, consult your doctor.