Some people experience pain in left arm and immediately think it might be related to a heart problem. Although that is one possibility, there are other factors that can cause arm pain, whether it is unilateral (affects only one arm) or bilateral (affects both arms).
Pain in left arm can also be an acute or a chronic condition. Sudden or short lasting arm pain is said to be acute while one that persists for over three months is considered to be chronic. In some cases, pain just comes and goes, while in some people, pain may become progressive and debilitating.
Pain in left arm may be experience by anyone, but it is more common among women who are about forty years old. It may be a mild and dull type of pain, but in others it could be a sharp, shooting pain that can be severe. The pain may affect any part of the arm or the whole arm, from the fingertips to the shoulder.
Although home treatments sometimes relieve the pain, it is always best to consult a doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment, especially if the pain is severe or chronic in nature.
Causes of and Treatments of Pain in Left Arm
1. Heart Attack
A myocardial infarction or heart attack occurs when the heart muscles are deprived of oxygen supply due to poor circulation, resulting in the death of the heart muscle cells. This can be due to a blood clot in one of the coronary arteries (blood vessel in the heart) or a spasm or severe constriction of these arteries. A heart attack may occur during intense activity or at rest, and it may also be triggered by emotions. Symptoms of a heart attack include chest pain, which can radiate to the left arm, back, jaw or throat. The chest pain may be felt as a squeezing or heavy type of pain underneath the breastbone. It may also be accompanied by sweating, dizziness, nausea and vomiting. However, some people do not experience these symptoms and are said to suffer from a silent myocardial infarction.
Treatment of a heart attack should be done immediately, because it can be fatal. Emergency medical services (911) must be called so that blood circulation to the heart may be restored. Treatment includes the use of special medications to dissolve blood clots, improve heart function, relieve pain and prevent abnormal heart rhythms. Sometimes a surgical procedure called angioplasty may be done to widen the narrow or blocked arteries in the heart. But in cases where there is a severe, life threatening blockage of arteries, a heart bypass surgery may be done.
Angina pectoris (chest pain) or angina is a characteristic symptom of coronary artery disease, which is often described as a chest discomfort or a heavy sensation in the chest. It can be perceived as pressure, burning, aching, squeezing, fullness, or a painful sensation that is related to a reduction in blood flow and oxygen supply to the heart. Although often felt in the chest, the pain or discomfort may radiate to the upper abdomen (often mistaken for indigestion), the left shoulder, left arm, neck, jaw and back.
The treatment of angina involves a combination of special medications and lifestyle changes to improve blood circulation to the heart. Medications include those needed to control the amount of oxygen to the heart, like nitrates, beta-blockers, ranolazine and calcium channel blockers. In order to prevent blood clots formation, medications like antiplatelet medications are used. Lifestyle changes should include adapting a healthy diet, exercising regularly, stress reduction, and quitting smoking. However, in some people, angioplasty or coronary artery bypass surgery may be needed to prevent a possible heart attack.
3. Stress or Panic Attack
Sometimes too much stress can cause a panic attack that may feel like one is having a heart attack. This may include symptoms of sweating, palpitations, chest heaviness and pain in left arm, which could be mistaken for angina or heart attack. However, closer medical examination may show no evidence of heart problems but indicate more of a psychological issue.
Treatment for extreme stress and panic attacks includes managing stress with these techniques and principles:
- Avoiding unnecessary stress
- Altering stressful situations
- Adapting to known stressors
- Accepting the things you cannot change
- Making time for relaxation and fun
- Adapting a healthy lifestyle
Often enough, adapting a healthy lifestyle is the most effective and natural way of managing stress that leads to panic attacks. This involves eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, getting enough rest and sleep, and avoiding alcohol, cigarettes or drugs that can harm the body.
4. Physical Injuries and Overuse
Physical injuries or overuse of the body involving the left side can result in pain in left arm. These include:
- Mastectomy (breast removal surgery). Women who have breast cancer and have undergone surgical removal of the left breast may experience left arm pain.
- Left Brachial Plexus Injury. Injury to the nerve network that sends neural signals to your left shoulder and arm from the spine may be due to overstretching. Sometimes, these structures can get torn or severely injured, especially during contact sports. Although some of these injuries may heal on their own, surgery may be required for severe damage.
- Broken Arm, Wrist or Hand. Injury to the arm, wrist or hand that results in fracture or other severe trauma will lead to pain in left arm that needs immediate medical attention.
- Strains/Sprains. These common injuries often result from sports or other strenuous activities. A sprain occurs when ligaments are overstretched, while a strain occurs when muscles or tendons are torn. These are self-healing injuries, but you must rest the arm and avoid using it to prevent pain from becoming persistent or worse.
- Rotator Cuff Injury. The shoulder is stabilized by a group of muscles called the rotator cuff. Injury to these muscles can cause severe shoulder and arm pain, which could become persistent. This must be treated immediately with pain medications and physical therapy.
- Tendinitis. Inflammation of the tendons, which attach our muscles to the bone in the shoulder or arm may be caused by sudden injury or repetitious use of the body part. This condition, known as tendinitis, or tennis elbow, golfer's elbow, pitcher's shoulder, swimmer's shoulder, may cause pain in left arm, which should be treated with anti-inflammatory drugs and physical therapy.
5. Bad Circulation
Poor circulation in the arm may be due to many causes and can lead to pain. The most common ones include: constriction of blood vessels, which may be due to extremely cold temperatures, physical trauma, or disease, deficiency of essential nutrients, certain medications and substances, blood clot formation and improper sleeping position.
To prevent pain in left arm due to poor circulation, you must take good care of your health by following a balanced diet to avoid nutritional deficiency and taking nutritional supplements like gingko biloba and vitamin C to improve blood vessels function. It is also advisable to wear comfortable clothes and to protect yourself from cold temperatures. Avoid taking caffeine, alcohol, or nicotine, which can constrict blood vessels. Massaging the arm with warm olive oil before going to bed is a great way to promote good arm circulation, too. Finally, exercise will help improve blood circulation not only to the arm, but the whole body as well.
Poor arm circulation might be an indication of some underlying disease. It is best to visit a doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment.
6. Improper Sleeping Posture
This often causes pinching of a nerve in the arm that may cause a sensation of numbness or pain in left arm. Try to adapt a better sleeping position that does not cause pressure on your hand or arm.
7. Medication Side Effects
Medications sometimes cause side effects, including pain in the extremities. If you suspect that your medication is causing this side effect, ask your doctor about substituting your drug for another if possible.
When to See a Doctor
Not all cases of pain in left arm are due to a heart problem such as a heart attack. It may be a simple case of poor posture when sleeping but it may also be a sign of another disease. However, you should see a doctor when your arm, shoulder or back is suddenly or severely painful, especially if it is accompanied by a feeling of fullness, pressure, or squeezing in the chest, which may signal a heart attack. Another urgent reason to see a doctor is after an injury, which causes an obvious deformity, bleeding or other injuries.
Schedule a medical appointment for less urgent causes like left arm pain that does not improve with home treatments done for several days, persistent or increasing swelling or pain, and other injuries that do not respond to usual care.