What Causes Severe Upper Arm Pain & When to Seek Care

Severe pain in the upper arm is usually caused by trauma from an injury that can lead to bruising, dislocation, or fractures of the bone. Other causes of sharp pain in the upper arm can arise from infection to the upper arm skin, bones, or nerves. Read below for more information on causes and treatment options.

Severe Upper Arm Pain Symptom Checker

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your severe upper arm pain

Contents

  1. Symptoms
  2. Causes
  3. 7 Possible Severe Upper Arm Pain Conditions
  4. Treatments and Relief
  5. FAQs
  6. Questions Your Doctor May Ask
  7. Statistics
  8. Related Articles
  9. References

Severe Upper Arm Pain Symptoms

Severe upper arm pain is often associated with traumatic events that result in fractures or sprains, but there are many other causes of severe arm pain not related to traumatic injury.

Common accompanying symptoms of severe upper arm pain

Pain is often not the only symptom associated with this condition; you may experience other symptoms including:

Seek prompt medical attention if you experience severe upper arm pain and any associated symptoms as you most likely need treatment from a healthcare professional.

Severe Upper Arm Pain Causes

The upper arm contains muscles, nerves, arteries, joints, and bones important to the function of the shoulder, arm, and hand. Any condition that causes inflammation, injury or other damage to these components can result in severe upper arm pain.

Upper arm structure explained

The upper arm is controlled by a complicated branching system of nerves called the brachial plexus [1]. This plexus of nerves start from the cervical spinal cord, travel down the neck, over the first rib, and into the armpit to provide innervation to not only the arm and hand but also the chest and shoulder. See an image of the brachial plexus here and here.

The shoulder/upper arm is a mobile joint highly susceptible to injury. The shoulder joint consists of the shoulder blade (scapula), the collarbone (clavicle) and the bone of the upper arm (humerus). The head of the humerus sits in a socket of the scapula called the glenoid. There is a ring of tissue that surrounds the glenoid socket (labrum) that keeps all of these pieces in place. See this image for a visual representation.

Traumatic causes

Any activities that cause direct trauma to the shoulder area can result in severe pain due to fractures, muscle tears, nerve compression, and even the disruption of blood flow [5]. Traumatic injuries include:

  • Falling on an outstretched arm
  • A direct blow to the shoulder: Such as from a motor vehicle accident or even falling from a bicycle
  • A sudden, forceful pull: For example, when trying to lift a heavy object from the ground.
  • Displacement of the system of bones, sockets, and tissue of the shoulder: Causing the shoulder to feel as if it has popped out of place.

Inflammatory causes

Inflammatory causes of severe upper arm pain may be related to the following.

  • Infectious: Many different types of infection, either viral and bacterial, can damage or irritate many components of the upper arm such as the bones, nerves and even skin. For example, infections can affect the bones that can result in debilitating arm pain. Varicella zoster is a type of virus that can persist in the body and lie dormant in the peripheral nerves for years. It causes shingles, a painful, itchy and blistering rash that often happens in older or immunocompromised individuals. Even after the resolution of the initial rash, some individuals may continue to experience severe pain known as postherpetic neuralgia in the area [2]. If varicella were to affect the nerves in the upper arm, postherpetic neuralgia and its associated symptoms may develop.
  • Rheumatologic: Rheumatologic conditions often involve inflammation of muscles, blood vessels, bones and the soft tissues of the body. Sometimes the exact etiology is unclear, but this systemic inflammation often results in pain of the affected area. Many conditions such as polymyalgia rheumatica, arthritis and "frozen shoulder" can present in the upper arm, causing severe and debilitating pain [3,4].

Compression-related causes

Causes that may lead to compression and result in severe upper arm pain may include the following.

  • Cancer: Either benign or malignant tumors may grow or invade the lower spine and compress the nerves in this area resulting in pain and weakness.
  • Mechanical: Abnormalities in the way that the bones adjacent to the upper arm (such as the collarbone, ribs, and disks of the cervical spine) interact with the brachial plexus can result in symptoms of pain, numbness or weakness [1].

7 Possible Severe Upper Arm Pain Conditions

The list below shows results from the use of our quiz by Buoy users who experienced severe upper arm pain. This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Brachial plexopathy (shoulder nerve issue)

The brachial plexus is a web of nerves between the neck and shoulder, connecting the spinal cord nerves to the arm. There is one web on each side of the neck. Any injury that forces the shoulder to stretch down, and the neck to stretch up and away, can damage these nerves and cause brachial plexopathy.

Sports injuries and car accidents are often involved. Inflammation, tumors, and radiation treatment can also damage the brachial plexus.

Milder symptoms include numbness and weakness in the arm, with a shocklike stinging or burning sensation. A more severe injury can cause paralysis and loss of feeling in the arm, with pain in some parts of the arm, hand, and shoulder.

These symptoms should be seen by a medical provider since permanent damage can result if the injuries are not treated.

Diagnosis is made through electromyography (EMG) testing, CT scan, MRI, and sometimes angiogram.

Treatment usually involves rest and physical therapy. Surgery may be necessary to remove scar tissue or repair the damaged nerves.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: pain in one arm, shoulder pain that shoots to the arm, arm weakness, numbness in one arm, shoulder pain

Symptoms that never occur with brachial plexopathy (shoulder nerve issue): pain in the front middle part of the neck

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Upper arm bone infection (osteomyelitis)

Osteomyelitis of the upper arm is a bacterial or fungal infection of the bone, typically caused by Staph Aureus (40-50% of the time). It is difficult to diagnose as the infection can come from a break in the skin at the area or anywhere else in the body that spreads by blood.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: moderate fever, constant upper arm pain, spontaneous upper arm pain, warm red upper arm swelling, painful surgical site

Symptoms that always occur with upper arm bone infection (osteomyelitis): constant upper arm pain, spontaneous upper arm pain

Urgency: Hospital emergency room

Bruised tricep

A bruise is the damage of the blood vessels that return blood to the heart (the capillaries and veins), which causes pooling of the blood. This explains the blue/purple color of most bruises. Bruises of the tricep are common, often due to minor injury.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: constant upper arm pain, tricep injury, pain in one tricep, swelling of one arm, upper arm bruise

Symptoms that always occur with bruised tricep: tricep injury, constant upper arm pain

Urgency: Self-treatment

Severe Upper Arm Pain Symptom Checker

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your severe upper arm pain

Bicep bruise

A bruise is the damage of the blood vessels that return blood to the heart (the capillaries and veins), which causes pooling of the blood. This explains the blue/purple color of most bruises. Bruises of the bicep are common due to minor injuries.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: constant upper arm pain, recent bicep injury, pain in one bicep, swelling of one arm, upper arm bruise

Symptoms that always occur with bicep bruise: recent bicep injury, constant upper arm pain

Urgency: Self-treatment

Cellulitis

Cellulitis is a bacterial infection of the deep layers of the skin. It can appear anywhere on the body but is most common on the feet, lower legs, and face.

The condition can develop if Staphylococcus bacteria enter broken skin through a cut, scrape, or existing skin infection such as impetigo or eczema.

Most susceptible are those with a weakened immune system, as from corticosteroids or chemotherapy, or with impaired circulation from diabetes or any vascular disease.

Symptoms arise somewhat gradually and include sore, reddened skin.

If not treated, the infection can become severe, form pus, and destroy the tissue around it. In rare cases, the infection can cause blood poisoning or meningitis.

Symptom of severe pain, fever, cold sweats, and fast heartbeat should be seen immediately by a medical provider.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination.

Treatment consists of antibiotics, keeping the wound clean, and sometimes surgery to remove any dead tissue. Cellulitis often recurs, so it is important to treat any underlying conditions and improve the immune system with rest and good nutrition.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: fever, chills, facial redness, swollen face, face pain

Symptoms that always occur with cellulitis: facial redness, area of skin redness

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Complex regional pain syndrome (crps)

Complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) is also called reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD.) It is a type of chronic pain that results in an unexplained, and unexpected, level of discomfort.

The cause is not entirely known. CRPS most often appears after a severe, traumatic injury to an arm or leg, but may also arise after surgery, illness, or a less serious injury. It may be due to a problem with the nervous system's response to inflammation from the injuries or illnesses.

Symptoms include an area of the arms or legs that is throbbing, burning, swollen, and overly sensitive; may appear cold, sweaty, white, mottled, blue or shiny; and may display weakness and atrophy (muscle loss.) The pain may be exacerbated by emotional distress.

It is important to see a medical provider for these symptoms. The sooner treatment can begin, the better the results.

Diagnosis is made through patient history and physical examination. Nerve studies and imaging may also be done.

Treatment involves some combination of neuropathic pain relievers, antidepressants, corticosteroids, and various physical therapies.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: pain in one arm, pain in one leg, pain in one foot, tremor, fatigue

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Compartment syndrome

Acute compartment syndrome describes the damage done to certain muscle groups of the arms or legs after a traumatic injury.

All of the long muscles are bundled into sections – "compartments" – by the white sheets of strong, tough connective tissue called fascia. If something interferes with circulation so that blood flow is trapped within the compartment, pressure rises because the fascia cannot stretch. This causes serious damage to the muscles and other tissues within the compartment.

Acute compartment syndrome is caused by a broken bone; a crush injury; burns, due to scarred and tightened skin; and bandages or casts applied before an injury has stopped swelling.

Symptoms can rapidly intensify. They include severe pain and tightness in the muscle; tingling or burning sensation; and sometimes numbness and weakness.

Acute compartment syndrome is a medical emergency which can result in loss of the limb. Take the patient to the emergency room or call 9-1-1.

Diagnosis is made through patient history and physical examination.

Treatment involves hospitalization for emergency surgery and, in some cases, skin graft.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: arm numbness, hand numbness, foot numbness, pain in one leg, thigh numbness

Urgency: Hospital emergency room

Severe Upper Arm Pain Treatments and Relief

You should seek care as soon as you can for any severe pain, especially if you are aware of some sort of traumatic injury. Treatment will depend on the exact cause of your symptoms. Your physician may discuss the following treatment options with you such as:

  • Surgery: Surgery is often necessary to remove fragments in the cervical spine that could be causing symptoms. Surgery may also be used to remove tumors causing compression or other issues.
  • Cancer treatment: If your symptoms are the result of a compressive tumor, your physician may also discuss chemotherapy or radiation in addition to surgery.
  • Medication: If your symptoms are due to infection or inflammation, your physician may prescribe antibiotics for infections, steroids for inflammatory conditions, or more advanced treatments for conditions such as lupus.
  • Physical therapy or rehabilitation: Your physician may prescribe stretching exercises or a physical therapy/rehabilitation program to help you restore range of motion, strength, and stability to your shoulder, especially after an injury.

FAQs About Severe Upper Arm Pain

Here are some frequently asked questions about severe upper arm pain.

How long will my severe upper arm pain last?

Many causes of severe upper arm pain resolve on their own and are considered self-limited. However, some injuries related to trauma last for longer periods. Cancer-related upper arm pain and rheumatologic conditions often last longer as well.

What kind of medication will my doctor use to treat my severe upper arm pain?

Pain management often begins with a carefully planned regimen of NSAIDs, opiates, and neuroleptic (anticonvulsants or antipsychotics) medications. Your physician will discuss specifics in order to provide you the best relief.

What alternatives can I try to control my severe upper arm pain?

Some people find that low-impact exercise, yoga, or meditation are helpful in resolving pain. Acupuncture may also help control severe pain.

Will severe upper arm pain affect my daily activities?

Severe upper arm pain will affect movements such as shoulder rotation, abduction, and adduction. You may find it difficult to perform basic activities, so it's often necessary to consult a professional for treatment.

How long does it take a broken shoulder to heal?

Broken bones heal at different rates depending on age, fracture type, and severity. If the injury was not severe, your shoulder may heal in four to six weeks. Shoulder exercises and physical therapy can help you recover faster and restore function more effectively.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Severe Upper Arm Pain

To diagnose this condition, your doctor would likely ask the following questions:

  • Where on your upper arm is the pain?
  • Did you recently experience an injury to the upper arm area?
  • Have any of your muscles gotten much smaller (wasted away)?
  • Does your pain continue into the night?

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions

Please take a quiz to find out what might be causing your severe upper arm pain. These questions are also covered.

Take quiz

Severe Upper Arm Pain Symptom Checker Statistics

People who have experienced severe upper arm pain have also experienced:

  • 19% Pain In One Shoulder
  • 7% Severe Shoulder Pain
  • 5% Pain In One Arm

People who have experienced severe upper arm pain were most often matched with:

  • 60% Upper Arm Bone Infection (Osteomyelitis)
  • 30% Brachial Plexopathy (Shoulder Nerve Issue)
  • 10% Bruised Tricep

People who have experienced severe upper arm pain had symptoms persist for:

  • 37% Over a month
  • 22% Less than a week
  • 20% Less than a day

Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from Buoy Assistant (a.k.a. the quiz).

Severe Upper Arm Pain Symptom Checker

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your severe upper arm pain

References

  1. Brachial Plexus Injuries. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: OrthoInfo. Reviewed June 2015. OrthoInfo Link
  2. Postherpetic neuralgia aftercare. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Reviewed March 15, 2018. Medline Plus Link
  3. Docken WP. Clinical Manifestations and Diagnosis of Polymyalgia Rheumatica. UpToDate. Updated November 2, 2017. UpToDate Link
  4. Manske RC, Prohaska D. Diagnosis and management of adhesive capsulitis. Curr Rev Musculoskelet Med. 2008;1(3-4):180-9. NCBI Link
  5. Shoulder Trauma (Fractures and Dislocations). American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: OrthoInfo. Updated September 2007. OrthoInfo Link