Author: Lauren Martin
If a person is experiencing pain in their left arm, they should not disregard it, especially if they also have chest pains. These may be symptoms of a heart attack, which requires urgent medical treatment.
During a heart attack, a person may also feel pain in the shoulders, jaw, or abdomen. Additionally, they may experience excessive sweating, feel nauseous, or vomit.
Left arm pain and numbness have numerous causes. Other conditions that may cause these symptoms include a pinched nerve, elbow injuries, and hemiplegic migraine.
Read on to learn more about conditions that cause left arm pain and numbness.
Yes, pain in the left arm can be a symptom of a heart attack. Other heart attack symptoms include:
- chest pain, pressure, or a squeezing sensation
- neck, jaw, or throat pain
- abdominal pain
- shortness of breath
- excessive sweating
- nausea and vomiting
If a person thinks they may be experiencing a heart attack, they should dial 911 or the number of the nearest emergency department for immediate medical help.
Other causes of left arm pain and numbness can be mild such as soft tissue damage to the elbow. However, if someone is experiencing pain in their arm in addition to other areas of the body, it could signal a neurological condition, such as multiple sclerosis (MS).
Below we give a brief overview of other conditions that present with arm pain and numbness, along with their treatments.
1. Arm artery disease
When the arteries of the arm narrow or become blocked, oxygen-rich blood can no longer reach the arm. Symptoms include:
- intermittent pain that occurs during exercise
- muscle loss in the affected arm
- cool or discolored skin in the affected arm
Treatment of arm artery disease varies depending on the cause. Sometimes lifestyle changes are enough to manage symptoms. For example, if applicable, a person may give up smoking and change their diet to improve their cardiovascular health.
Some people will require medications to treat the condition. In more severe cases, a person may need to undergo surgery to increase blood flow to the arm.
2. Pinched nerve
A pinched nerve occurs due to injury, compression, or damage to a specific nerve. Sometimes, this affects an arm, causing pain or numbness. Other symptoms can include:
- pins and needles
- a burning sensation
The treatment a person receives for a pinched nerve will depend on the severity of their symptoms. For minor pain, a doctor may suggest over-the-counter pain medications, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Other options include physical therapy and supportive devices, such as a splint.
If these treatments do not reduce symptoms, surgery may be an option.
3. Peripheral neuropathy
Peripheral neuropathy occurs when damage occurs to nerves in the limbs, such as the arms. The condition affects up to 50% of all people with diabetes, but this is not the only cause.
The symptoms of peripheral neuropathy include:
Thie condition may result in difficulties moving the arms or a loss of muscle tone.
There is currently no way to reverse nerve damage, so if a person notices early signs that could indicate peripheral neuropathy, they should speak with a doctor right away. If the cause is diabetes, managing the condition effectively can prevent further neuropathy from developing.
A doctor may suggest certain types of antidepressants to treat the pain. Other options include skin patches, creams, or sprays that contain lidocaine.
4. Cervical spinal stenosis
“Stenosis” refers to narrowing. In cervical spinal stenosis, the part of the spine between the shoulders narrows, applying pressure to the nerves in that area. This can cause pain and weakness in the arm.
Possible causes of cervical spinal stenosis include osteoporosis and a herniated disc.
To relieve pressure on the nerves, a doctor may suggest a person wears a brace to support the back. They may also suggest resting and taking NSAIDs to relieve pain. Sometimes, a person may require surgery to address the narrowing.
5. Elbow trauma
Elbow trauma, or injury, can cause pain in the arm. It is more common in athletes and children than in other groups. Usually, the cause of pain in the arm is soft tissue damage, such as a sprain. More serious injuries may include a fracture or dislocation.
Resting, applying ice to the affected area, and taking pain medications are usually enough for minor elbow injuries. Depending on the extent of soft tissue damage, a person may need physical therapy to regain range of motion. Injuries such as a fracture or dislocation may require treatment in an accident and emergency department.
6. Hemiplegic migraine
Hemiplegic migraine is a rare neurological condition. It causes symptoms similar to regular migraine, such as a headache and nausea, as well as muscle weakness down one side of the body. A person may also experience tingling and numbness. Usually, symptoms begin in the hand and then spread up the arm.
If the onset of hemiplegic migraine is sudden and severe, a person will usually take NSAIDs for the pain and antiemetics to prevent nausea and vomiting.
In cases where other family members also have hemiplegic migraine, a person may have inherited familial hemiplegic migraine. For this type of migraine, intranasal ketamine could be an effective treatment option.
Some drugs people use for typical migraine, such as triptans and ergotamines, may not be suitable for hemiplegic migraine.
MS is a condition in which the immune system attacks the sheath that surrounds nerves. This can result in pain in any part of the body, including the arms. A person with MS may also experience:
- loss of sensation, or numbness
- crawling or tingling sensations
- shooting pain that is similar to an electric shock
- a higher sensitivity to pain
Treating MS pain involves medications. The first-line treatment options include certain antidepressants, anticonvulsants, and topical lidocaine. Newer alternatives, such as cannabinoid drugs and neurostimulation, may also help.
8. Lyme disease
Lyme disease occurs due to a bacterial infection that certain types of ticks transmit when they bite humans.
The first stage of the disease develops 5–7 days after the initial bite. It can include a distinctive bullseye rash, but this is not always present. A person may also have a low fever and flu-like symptoms.
The second stage of Lyme disease occurs around 3–12 weeks after the bite. At this stage, a person may experience pain, particularly around joints such as the wrist. Muscle aches, headaches, dizziness, and chest pain can also occur.
Late stage Lyme disease can have nervous system involvement, which may result in pain, numbness, or tingling in the hands and feet.
The treatment for Lyme disease depends on the person’s age and the disease stage. People over 8 years old may take doxycycline, an antibiotic, for 10 days if the disease is in its early stages. In children, the antibiotic amoxicillin is the first-line treatment option.
Late stage Lyme disease can require longer courses of antibiotics or IV antibiotics.
9. Allergic reactions
A severe type of allergic reaction, known as anaphylaxis, can cause paresthesia — numbness or a burning feeling — in the left arm in some cases.
Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that can be life threatening. The symptoms develop suddenly and include:
- swelling of the face or mouth
- fast, shallow breathing
- a fast heart rate
- clammy skin
- anxiety or confusion
- blue or white lips
- fainting or loss of consciousness
If someone has these symptoms:
- Check whether they are carrying an epinephrine pen. If they are, follow the instructions on the side of the pen to use it.
- Dial 911 or the number of the nearest emergency department.
- Lay the person down from a standing position. If they have vomited, turn them onto their side.
- Stay with them until the emergency services arrive.
Some people may need more than one epinephrine injection. If the symptoms do not improve in 5–15 minutes, or they come back, use a second pen if the person has one.
A person who has left arm pain and numbness along with chest pains should call 911 immediately, as these may be symptoms of a heart attack.
For others, it is important to speak with a doctor if arm pain or numbness is not going away on its own, or if the person also has other symptoms.
Left arm pain and numbness can be symptoms of many conditions, one of the most serious being heart attack. Other potential causes include an injury, a pinched nerve, peripheral neuropathy, or hemiplegic migraine.
Treatment for arm pain and numbness depends on the cause. For example, a person can generally treat a mild elbow injury with rest, ice, and pain medication. Other conditions require ongoing management to control the symptoms and prevent complications.