Minor aches and pains in the left arm are often a normal part of aging. However, if the pain in the left arm is sudden or unusual, it could be a sign of a more serious medical problem. It could be a symptom of an injury that needs treatment or, in the worst case, it can be a heart attack symptom.
Knowing the possible causes and characteristics of pain in the left arm can help a person recognize what the body reacts to and determine when to seek medical attention.
In this article we explain the possible causes of pain in the left arm. We describe, in addition, the other symptoms that can help a person identify the underlying problem for each of the following causes.
A heart attack occurs when a portion of the heart muscle is damaged or stops functioning completely due to lack of oxygen.
Most heart attacks occur as a result of narrowing of the coronary arteries. The arteries narrow due to an accumulation of plaque. If a piece of plaque breaks off the wall of the artery, it can cut off the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart, causing a heart attack.
Pain in the left arm is one of the most common symptoms of a heart attack. The nerves that come from the heart and those that come from the arm send signals to the brain cells themselves, and this makes the brain unable to isolate the source of pain.
This phenomenon, called referred pain, explains why a person experiencing a heart attack may feel pain in the arm and not feel it in the chest.
The American Heart Association (AHA) advises calling 911 if the sudden pain in the left arm worsens after a few minutes or if it occurs along with any of the following symptoms:
- discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes or that appears and disappears
- pain, numbness or some discomfort in the back, neck, jaw or lower abdomen
- shortness of breath with or without chest pain
- nausea or vomiting
- sudden sweats or hot flashes
Chest discomfort is the most common heart attack symptom in men and women. It feels like pressure, stiffness, fullness, burning or pain that gradually increases.
However, women are usually more likely than men to experience other symptoms when they have a heart attack, such as difficulty breathing and nausea, which can be incorrectly attributed to a virus, indigestion or stress.
If a person experiences a sudden combination of nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath or pain in the lower abdomen, back or jaw, you should seek medical attention immediately.
People who experience angina feel discomfort or pain as a result of the heart receiving less oxygen than it needs to function. At the same time that they feel pain in the left arm, symptoms may also appear in the shoulders, neck, back or jaw. Angina can also feel like indigestion.
Angina is not a heart attack; However, it is a sign of a heart problem. It usually occurs when the coronary arteries become clogged or narrow.
There are two main types of angina:
Stable angina is predictable and can be controlled. It occurs constantly for at least 2 months and only in times of physical exertion or emotional stress.
These circumstances exert more effort on the heart, which means that you need more oxygen than narrowed arteries allow. Rest can help a person treat stable angina. If needed, a doctor may prescribe a medicine called nitroglycerin to relax the arteries.
This type of angina is more unpredictable and dangerous. It can occur even when the person is resting, because the heart does not continuously receive the oxygen it needs to function.
Unstable angina is a sign that a person is at risk of a heart attack. A medical professional should evaluate people with unstable angina in an emergency room.
Pain in the left arm is probably not the result of heart problems if you have the following discomforts:
- the pain has a “stabbing” quality and only lasts a few seconds
- pain caused by movement or touch
- only pain is felt in a small area of the arm
- discomfort persists without other symptoms for hours or days
Instead, pain can be a symptom of having bone or arm, shoulder or elbow tissue injuries.
However, even if you know these possible skeletal musculoskeletal conditions well, it can be difficult to determine if the pain in your left arm is caused by an injury or a heart attack. Certain risk factors for both, such as age and physical activities, also coincide.
For these reasons, it is important that you do not attempt to self-diagnose an injury or rule out a heart problem without medical assistance.
Common skeletal musculoskeletal conditions that can cause arm pain include:
The bursitis is a bag or sack full of fluid that acts as a cushion between a bone and surrounding soft tissue. Bursitis is the inflammation of the bag.
Pain in the left arm can be a symptom of bursitis in the shoulder, as a result of excessive use of the joint. If the bag suffers direct trauma or becomes infected, it can also contribute to pain in the left arm.
The tendinitis is inflammation in the connective tissue between the muscle and bone. It usually develops due to the repetitive use of the joint. And this is why tennis players, swimmers or musicians are usually the most affected.
Tendonitis in the shoulder or elbow can cause pain in the left arm.
Rotator cuff tear
The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that hold the shoulder in its receptacle and help a person to rotate the arm and lift objects.
A tear in the soft tissue of this area can be very painful. It is usually the result of excessive use of the shoulder or if there is direct trauma. Aging also causes degeneration of shoulder tissues, and that may increase the risk of a tear.
When one of the cushioning discs between the vertebrae of the spine is broken, it protrudes between the bones of the spine and pushes against the surrounding nerves.
If the disc pushes against the nerves that the arm uses, pain, numbness or weakness can be felt in that arm. These symptoms may resemble those of a heart attack, but the cause is different.
A common cause of herniated disc is the repetitive lifting of heavy things.
Pain in the arm can be a symptom of an undetected broken bone.
While arm and shoulder injuries may not be life-threatening, it is still important that you seek a doctor’s evaluation. Early treatment can help the tissues or bones heal and prevent further damage.
However, the most important factor of early treatment when you have left arm pain is to rule out a heart attack.
If emergency doctors decide that your arm pain is the symptom of a heart attack or an arterial blockage, they will act immediately. First, they will most likely perform an electrocardiogram, a blood test, a chest x-ray and possibly a CT scan.
The doctor may also use a diagnostic imaging procedure called cardiac catheterization. This test allows doctors to evaluate the extent of blockages by injecting a dye into the arteries.
From the results, doctors can choose a non-invasive treatment. For example, they may prescribe a medication that dissolves blood clots.
More severe blockages may require surgery. There are a variety of cardiac procedures, and the factors involved in choosing the most appropriate are complex. Some possible options to restore blood flow to the heart include:
- Stent Implantation: The surgeon inserts an extendable metal mesh tubular in a narrow artery to widen it and promote blood flow. This tube is called a stent.
- Angioplasty: The surgeon inflates a small balloon into a blocked artery and reopens it to allow blood flow. They can also attach a stent to the balloon to fix it in place.
- Bypass surgery: The surgeon uses a healthy section of the blood vessel to divert blood flow around the blockage.
If a person experiences a heart attack or angina, they must make changes in their lifestyle to avoid a recurrence. These may include:
- give up smoking
- achieve a healthy body weight
- start an exercise regimen
- eat a healthy diet that includes many vegetables, fruits, whole grains and lean meats, as well as low-fat dairy products
Doctors may also prescribe medications to lower cholesterol, prevent blood clotting or reduce blood pressure.
For people with type 2 diabetes
A doctor may prescribe specific medications for people with type 2 diabetes whose glucose levels remain high despite the changes they have made in their lifestyle and from taking metformin.
These medications should lower blood glucose and reduce the risk of atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease.
A doctor may prescribe a type 2 sodium-glucose cotransporter inhibitor (SGLT-2), such as cannagliflozin (Invokana), or a glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) receptor agonist, such as dulaglutide (Trulicity) ).
While pain in the left arm is not always a sign of a heart attack or angina, these are the most dangerous causes of this symptom. It is essential to seek immediate medical attention if along with the pain in the arm you experience difficulty breathing, nausea, chest pain and dizziness.
People who experience signs of heart disease should take steps to ensure that they reduce the risk of serious complications, such as stroke and heart attack.
These measures include changes in lifestyle, medications and, if necessary, surgery.
Making these changes may seem overwhelming at first, but they can help prevent further damage and heart attacks.