Upper back pain that shoots down the arm is often caused by an herniated disc in the upper back or myofascial pain syndrome. A pinched nerve in the upper back can also cause pain that radiates down the arm. Read below for more information on causes and relief options.
3 causes of upper back pain that shoots down the arm
This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.
Herniated (slipped) disk in the upper back
The backbone, or spine, is made up of 26 bones called vertebrae. In between the bones are soft disks filled with a jelly-like substance. These disks cushion the vertebrae and keep them in place. Although people talk about a slipped disk, nothing actually slips out of place. The outer shell of the disk ruptures, and the jelly-like substance bulges out. It may be pressing on a nerve, which is what causes the pain.A slipped disk is more likely to happen due to strain on the back, such as during heavy lifting, and older individuals are at higher risk.
Top Symptoms: upper back pain, neck pain, arm weakness, back pain that gets worse when sitting, upper spine pain
Symptoms that always occur with herniated (slipped) disk in the upper back: upper back pain
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Myofascial pain syndrome
Myofascial pain syndrome is also called chronic myofascial pain (CMP.) Pressure on certain points of the muscles causes referred pain, meaning the pain is felt elsewhere in the body.
The cause is believed to be muscle injury through overuse, either from sports or from a job requiring repetitive motion. Tension, stress, and poor posture can also cause habitual tightening of the muscles, a form of overuse.
This overuse causes scar tissue, or adhesions, to form in the muscles. These points are known as trigger points, since they trigger pain at any stimulus.
Symptoms include deep, aching muscular pain that does not go away with rest or massage, but may actually worsen. There is often difficulty sleeping due to pain.
Myofascial pain syndrome should be seen by a medical provider, since it can develop into a similar but more severe condition called fibromyalgia.
Diagnosis is made through physical examination and applying mild pressure to locate the trigger points.
Treatment involves physical therapy, pain medications, and trigger point injections. In some cases, acupuncture and antidepressants are helpful.
Top Symptoms: dizziness, spontaneous shoulder pain, pain in the back of the neck, tender muscle knot, general numbness
Symptoms that always occur with myofascial pain syndrome: tender muscle knot
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Pinched nerve in the neck
A pinched nerve in the neck is also called cervical radiculopathy. It means that a nerve in the neck, at a point where it branches off from the spinal cord, is being compressed by the surrounding bones, muscles, or other tissues.
It can be caused by a traumatic injury, such as from sports or an automobile accident, especially if the injury results in a herniated disk. It may also arise from the normal wear and tear of aging.
Symptoms include sharp, burning pain with numbness and tingling from the neck to the shoulder, as well as weakness and numbness into the arm and hand.
Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and simple neurological tests to check the reflexes. Imaging such as x-ray, CT scan, or MRI may be done, as well as electromyography to measure nerve impulses in the muscles.
A pinched nerve in the neck often improves with simply a few days or weeks of rest. Physical therapy, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and steroid injections into the spine can all be very helpful.
Top Symptoms: pain in one shoulder, spontaneous shoulder pain, pain that radiates down arm, pain in the back of the neck, severe shoulder pain
Urgency: Primary care doctor
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Questions your doctor may ask about upper back pain that shoots down the arm
- Turn your head toward the side of your body that is hurting. Lift your head up as someone else pushes down on your head. Does this cause greater pain in your upper body? (This is known as Spurling's test.)
- What is your body mass?
- Do you feel a painful, tight knot or band in your muscle anywhere on the body?
- What makes your back pain worse?
Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.
Upper back pain that shoots down the arm symptom checker statistics
People who have experienced upper back pain that shoots down the arm have also experienced:
- 15% Pain In One Shoulder
- 13% Shoulder Pain That Shoots To The Arm
- 5% Pain In One Shoulder Blade
People who have experienced upper back pain that shoots down the arm were most often matched with:
- 33% Herniated (Slipped) Disk In The Upper Back
- 33% Myofascial Pain Syndrome
- 33% Pinched Nerve In The Neck
People who have experienced upper back pain that shoots down the arm had symptoms persist for:
- 34% Less than a day
- 27% Less than a week
- 21% Over a month
Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from Buoy Assistant.
For 5 days I have had severe pain in my mid back radiating into my arm. Painkillers didn't help. Sent to A&E. They did xray and blood tests and sent me home despite seeing I was in severe pain. (Said it wasn't secondaries from breast cancer). Further contact with GP by phone resulted in a prescription for MST with Oramorph for breakthrough pain. Told to go back to see him next week!! Don't know where to turn as the pain is the worst I have ever had. I thought they should have found out cause of problem in hosp not left me suffering?