Read below about severe upper arm pain, including causes, treatment options and remedies. Or get a personalized analysis of your severe upper arm pain from our A.I. health assistant. At Buoy, we build tools that help you know what’s wrong right now and how to get the right care.

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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. 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 evaluation and treatment from a healthcare professional.

Severe Upper Arm Pain Causes

The upper arm contains an intricate array of muscles, nerves, arteries, joints, and bones that play important roles in the function of the shoulder, arm, and hand.

For example, the upper arm is controlled by a complicated branching system of nerves called the brachial plexus [1]. This plexus of nerves starts from the cervical spinal cord, travels 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 very mobile joint and very 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.

Any condition that causes inflammation, injury or other damage to these systems can result in severe upper arm pain.

Traumatic

Any activities that cause direct trauma to the shoulder area can result in severe pain and many other associated symptoms due to fracture of bones, tearing of muscles, disruption or compression of nerves and even disruption of blood flow [5]. Traumatic injuries include:

  • Falling on an outstretched arm.
  • A direct blow to the shoulder that results 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 poppedout of place.

Inflammatory

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].

Compressive

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

  • Cancer: Tumors, either benign or malignant, that grow or invade the lower spine can compress the nerves in this area resulting in progressive symptoms of pain, weakness, and other associated signs.
  • Mechanical: Anatomical 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 compression that can present as symptoms of pain, numbness or weakness [1].

7 Possible 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.

  1. 1.Brachial Plexopathy (Shoulder Nerve Issue)

    The brachial plexus is a complex nerve network located in the upper chest and shoulder region. Nerves can be explained as 'electric wires' of the body, passing through signals from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles. The brachial plexus is a bundle of nerves that lies deep to the collar bone, which supplies the shoulder, arm, forearm, and hand. When this bundle of nerves is (partially) damaged, one speaks of a 'plexopathy'. Several causes of damage can be injury or forceful trauma, inflammation or infection. A commonly known cause is sports injury in contact sports like football and rugby. Symptoms can include pain, burning, numbness and weakness in the shoulder and arm on one side, sometimes shooting through the arm to the hand. An acute (sports) injury that causes this condition is often called 'burners' or 'stingers' because of the burning and stinging type of pain. When the cause is inflammation of the nerves, it is often called the Parsonage-Turner syndrome.

    The severity of this condition is highly variable, and dependent on the amount of damage caused to the nerves. Brachial plexus injury following surgery usually has a good prognosis. Recovery times range from 2 weeks to 2 years.

    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
  2. 2.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.

    Improvement during a 6-week treatment with antibiotics

    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
  3. 3.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.

    Bruises tend to begin healing within one week.

    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

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  4. 4.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.

    Bruises tend to begin healing within one week.

    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
  5. 5.Cellulitis

    Facial cellulitis is a skin infection that typically comes from other parts of the face like the mouth or the sinuses and needs antibiotic treatment. Symptoms can be pain, redness, warmth and swelling of the affected area.

    Dependent on severity of infection

    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
  6. 6.Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (Crps)

    Complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) is a chronic pain condition which may happen after an injury, either to a nerve or to tissue in the affected area. It causes intense pain, usually in the arms, hands, legs, or feet.

    Unfortunately, CRPS is a life-long condition that may get worse over time.

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    pain in one arm, pain in one leg, pain in one foot, tremor, fatigue
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  7. 7.Compartment Syndrome

    Compartment syndrome is a serious condition that involves increased pressure in a muscle compartment. It can lead to muscle and nerve damage and problems with blood flow.

    Prognosis is highly variable after surgery and depends on how rapidly you are treated.

    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, Relief and Prevention

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 a first-line modality for removing pieces of bone or discs in the cervical spine that could be causing painful symptoms. Surgery may also be used for removal of some tumors that are causing compression or opening of stenosed outlets.
  • 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 physicianmay 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 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 of the causes of severe upper arm pain eventually resolve (they are considered self-limited conditions). Traumatic injuries will resolve with the healing of the affected area. However, some cases have lasted for longer periods. Cancer-related upper arm pain and rheumatologic conditions are often more chronic in nature and are not self-limited.

What kinds of medications will my doctor use to treat my severe upper arm pain?

Pain management often begins with a carefully planned combination regimen of NSAIDs, opiates and neuroleptic (anticonvulsants or antipsychotics) medications for proper symptom management. Your healthcare providers will discuss specifics on dosing and tapering in order to provide you the best relief.

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

Some people find that avenues such as low-impact exercise, yoga, or meditation are helpful in achieving some resolution of pain. Treatment modalities such as acupuncture can also be helpful in controlling severe pain.

Will severe upper arm pain affect my daily activities?

Your severe upper arm pain will affect full range movements such as shoulder rotation, abduction, adduction, and movement in general. You may find it difficult to perform basic activities such as brushing your hair, showering, picking up and transferring items, etc. Often the pain requires attention from a health professional given the significant effect on daily activities.

How long does it take a broken shoulder to heal?

Healing of broken bones depends on multiple factors including age, type of fracture and severity of trauma. If the injury was not severe, the shoulder may heal and return of function can be achieved in four to six weeks. Shoulder exercises and physical therapy can help with faster recovery and better return to function.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Severe Upper Arm Pain

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

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions, try our severe upper arm pain symptom checker to find out more.

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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 had symptoms persist for:

    • 37% Over a Month
    • 22% Less Than a Week
    • 20% Less Than a Day
  • 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
  • Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).

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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