Nerve pain in the arm can be caused by many different factors. Learn some of the most common reasons, and how to identify it.
A lot of arm pain is caused by misfired or damaged nerves, sometimes caused by associated illnesses, and sometimes the result of direct damage on the culprit nerve itself. Nerve pain in the arm is best distinguished from other causes of arm pain by the accompanying symptoms of numbness and weakness, as the nerves that enable communication between your limb and your brain to begin to falter.
However, because arm pain can be a sign of a heart attack, it’s always best to contact your doctor or a paramedic service if you’re experiencing radiating pain through one arm, especially the left one. Overwhelming pain of any kind should be treated as soon as possible and may be a sign of a greater underlying issue.
If this is a pain you’ve been dealing with for a while, chances are that it’s caused by some type of neuralgia, or nerve pain. Understanding nerve pain can help you understand the potential causes for it and get treatment sooner.
What is Nerve Pain?
Getting hit in the arm should feel painful and isn’t the kind of pain you would call nerve pain, even though the nerves are involved.
Your nerves are involved in all expressions of pain. Nerve pain as a term is reserved for cases where a dysfunction of the nerves causes your pain, rather than because of proper nerve function.
Examples would include a pinched or compressed nerve, a nerve misfiring due to physical or chemical damage, a nerve that healed improperly after surgery or injury, or secondary nerve pain associated with a primary illness, from cancer to diabetes. In these cases, the resulting pain is caused by some impediment or impairment to one or multiple nerves. Let’s have a look at a few of the most common causes of neuralgia in the arm.
Inarguably the most common cause of nerve pain in the arm is a pinched or compressed nerve. Mechanical compression of the nerve causes pain in precisely the way you’d think – by squeezing the nerve at a point and inhibiting normal function. What matters here is both the cause of the impingement and its location.
Nerve pain in your arm does not necessarily mean that the impingement is in your arm, as well. A nerve pinched at a point in your shoulder, upper back, or neck can cause pain to radiate down into your fingertips. Most forms of nerve impingement are diagnosed through a series of physical exams and some imaging technology to look for signs of inflammation or disc herniation.
Disc herniation occurs when the discs between your vertebrae are swollen or herniated, putting pressure on the surrounding nerve roots. Because these nerves innervate the rest of your body, herniation at some point in your back or neck can lead to pain in your chest, head, arms, hands, legs, and feet. Arm pain is usually associated with herniation in the neck or upper back.
Whereas mechanical compression is one of the most common causes of nerve pain in the arm, inflammation in the elbow or shoulder from a condition like rheumatoid arthritis, gout, or an old injury, can release pro-inflammatory cytokines which irritate and increase sensitivity to pain in the surrounding nerves.
Chronic joint inflammation can also be caused by conditions like osteoarthritis or an old injury rather than an inflammatory illness like gout or arthritis. While the pain in your elbows or wrists might not be solely nerve pain in these cases, any form of nerve pain in the area can be accentuated by these illnesses.
Although the connection is potentially tangential, there are signs that fibromyalgia can alter nerve sensitivity and cause both muscle pain and nerve pain. Studies have shown signs of polyneuropathy, or nerve damage in multiple areas, as a symptom of fibromyalgia.
Diabetic neuropathy is one of the most common types of nerve pain. It is caused by high glucose levels leading to nerve damage and poor circulation in the extremities associated with diabetic necrosis.
As your blood sugar levels begin to exceed the normal limit dangerously, the additional glucose in your blood begins to cause the breakdown of the protective myelin sheath around your peripheral nerves, causing pain that starts in the extremities.
Another common cause of peripheral neuropathy, including nerve pain in the legs and arms, is alcoholism. Excessive alcohol use can damage your nerves and cause nerve-related pain. While the mechanism for alcoholic neuropathy isn’t understood yet, it may be caused by consistently high ethanol levels in the bloodstream.
Alcoholic neuropathy can also be exacerbated by nutritional deficiencies, which are common in cases of alcoholism. With years of malnutrition, your body becomes more susceptible to pain and nerve damage, mainly when your diet lacks thiamine and other crucial vitamins.
Identifying the Cause of the Pain
Does the pain originate in the arm, or in the neck, or back? Is it caused by mechanical compression or by some other cause of neuralgia? Is it related to your diabetes or your arthritis?
These are some of the questions your doctor might ask themselves while diagnosing your condition. These, alongside how you perceive your pain, how long you’ve been in pain, how often you feel your pain (whether it’s continuous or episodic), and exactly how you would describe your pain (sharp, aching, burning, and so on).
Nerve Pain In The Arm: Final Thoughts
Pain conditions are varied, and diagnosing the origin of nerve pain, in particular, may take a few tests. Treatment is just as varied and is always tailored to the individual’s needs and considerations. The best treatment for your particular case might not be as effective for others. To that effect, your doctor may recommend:
- Non-opioid pain medication physical therapy and massages
- Nerve stimulation
- Temporary nerve blocks
- Pain pump
- And more.
If you or a loved one have been struggling with arm pain for a long time, it’s crucial to see a pain specialist as soon as you can. Some conditions deteriorate with time and become progressively harder to treat.