Pain in your right arm can be caused by a number of things. Some of these causes may be rather serious, but most of them are not. If you haven’t gone bowling for a long time and then do so for an hour or so, you’ll usually have some pain or soreness in your upper right extremity the next day, assuming you’re right-handed. Most right arm pain, and most left arm pain for that matter, is caused by overworking or overstraining certain muscles in the arm. When that is the case, the soreness and pain you might have to contend with the next day will seldom last for more than 24 hours, if that long. This is one reason why those who exercise with weights normally subject the same muscles to strenuous activity only on alternate days at the very most.
Different Categories and Causes of Arm Pain
The things that can cause your right arm to feel sore or painful can be placed into four broad categories for the purpose of this discussion. These categories include injury, nerve issues, heart problems and other less common causes, and pain that is felt both in the arm and in the back.
1) Injuries to Muscles, Tendons, and Bones
Muscle Strains – These are in fact the most common causes of discomfort in the right upper extremity. Fortunately, most muscle strains tend to be mild ones. Strains can affect either muscles or their associated tendons. There are three classes of strains. A Class I strain is said to occur when a muscle or tendon has been overstretched and has perhaps suffered a slight tear. This type of strain tends to heal quickly if you give the muscle a little rest and some ice treatments to keep any swelling down. A Class II strain is more severe. The tearing of the muscle is more pronounced, and the discomfort in one’s right upper extremity is apt to linger on until the tear has completely healed. A Class III strain is said to have taken place if a muscle or tendon has been ruptured or a muscle has torn completely away from a tendon. These strains are naturally extremely painful, and the pain one would experience will usually not go away until your arm has been immobilized with a compression bandage or a cast or has been placed in a splint and a sling. The muscles most likely to suffer from strains are those used in pushing or pulling heavy weights, namely the biceps brachii and the triceps brachii. Injuries to muscles or tendons in the hand will often cause discomfort in the arm since many of the muscles in the hand originate in the forearm.
Tendinitis – Tendinitis occurs when a tendon either has been overworked or is being rubbed against harder ligaments or bones and has consequently become worn or inflamed. The pain in your upper extremity is most likely to be felt in the elbow or just below the shoulder, depending upon which tendon has been injured or has become inflamed. If the tendon is associated with a wrist joint muscle, you can probably expect to feel some discomfort in your forearm from your wrist to your elbow. A somewhat common source of arm pain is from what is called tennis elbow, where the outside muscle or tendon in the elbow has become inflamed. Tennis elbow is usually due to repetitive movement.
Bone Fracture – This is an obvious source of pain. While people do from time to time experience broken arms, fractures are not nearly as common as muscle strains or tendinitis. A hairline or stress fracture may only cause temporary pain, but if the discomfort fades away, it will usually return later. At a minimum, you could expect to feel soreness or tenderness in that part of the upper limb where the fracture occurred. If the bone has been cracked or completely broken, as is the case with a compound fracture, the pain you will experience can be expected to be quite severe. In some instances when a bone has been fractured but the fracture is not a compound fracture, you might experience numbness rather than pain at first. Pain and tenderness will come somewhat later. Whatever the case, a bone fracture in your arm usually hurts – and will continue to hurt until compression is applied and your arm is at least partially immobilized. While you can break a bone in either your upper arm or your forearm, the great majority of fractures occur in one of the two bones in the forearm, the radius and the ulna.
Just as an injury to the hand or the wrist, or to the shoulder for that matter, can cause arm pain, so can a number of other injuries or disorders that do not necessarily involve the arm and therefore would not seem likely to cause pain to be felt in either the right or left arm. But that is not always the case.
2) Nervous System Causes
Pinched Nerve – If a nerve that serves the right upper limb is pinched or otherwise irritated, discomfort can often result, although the symptom will just likely be numbness or a tingling sensation. A pinched nerve can at times be a tricky situation since where the nerve is actually being compressed is not always where the discomfort will be experienced. Arm pain can result from a pinched nerve in the arm itself, in the back near the spinal column, or in the neck. A compressed nerve in the spine may cause pain to be experienced in the back, in the shoulder, or in one of the arms. A pinched nerve is a damaged nerve. The damage done may be mild or severe. In some cases, recovery will be immediate once the problem has been treated. In other cases, the symptoms experienced can be long lasting or even permanent.
Nerve Entrapment – While this condition is similar to that of a pinched nerve, there are some differences, at least from an anatomical perspective. Nerve entrapment occurs when a nerve that travels through a narrow or crowded space can easily come into contact with a ligament, a tendon, or a bone. The most likely regions where this condition might occur would be near the spinal column, in the shoulder, near the elbow joint, and in the wrist joint. One of the more common examples of this is a condition known as ulnar nerve entrapment, sometimes referred to as the cubital tunnel syndrome. The ulnar nerve, one of the largest nerves in the upper arm, can sometimes become entrapped when passing through the cubital tunnel in the elbow. When the compression on the ulnar nerve is enough to impair its function, pain will be experienced in the elbow, the forearm, the hand, and the fingers. One of the more frequent causes of this type of nerve entrapment consists of nothing more than holding the elbow in a bent position often and for extended periods.
Herniated Disk – A herniated disk will often cause back pain, but when the disk is located in the upper third or cervical part of the spine, the pressure the herniated disk can place on a nerve will in some cases cause right arm pain. Whether the discomfort will be felt in the right or left upper extremity depends upon the side of the spine from which the disk is protruding. The location where the pressure is being placed on the nerve obviously isn’t in the upper extremity, but it is in the arm where the pain is felt. This is an example of what is called a referred pain. While referred pains sometimes seem to make little sense, it’s just the way the nervous system works – which is at times unpredictable.
Thoracic Outlet Syndrome – The thoracic outlet is a somewhat crowded space that lies between your collarbone and your top or first rib. Several muscles, blood vessels, and nerves occupy this space, including the brachial plexus and the subclavian artery. If the condition arises in which the shoulder muscles in your chest become too weak to keep the collarbone in its proper position, it can slip and put pressure on this nerve as well as the blood vessel that lies beneath it. Pressure on the brachial plexus can cause pain in several areas, including your right upper extremity. Excessive pressure on the subclavian artery tends to cause weakness in the upper limb rather than pain.
There are several other causes in which pain may be felt in one’s right arm while there is nothing wrong with the arm itself. These involve the heart, the spinal column, and the nerve that lies below.
3) Heart and Spinal Cord Issues
Heart attack – Pain extending down the left arm is often one of the symptoms of a heart attack or an impending heart attack. A heart attack can also cause pain to be experienced in the right arm, although the chances of pain occurring in the right upper limb for this reason are somewhat small. Many heart attacks start slowly, and the symptoms can vary. A person who has had a previous heart attack (left arm) may feel different symptoms (right arm) on the second time. Pain associated with a heart attack can therefore be experienced in either arm, but in the majority of cases, it is felt in the left arm.
Syringomyelia – Although it is not very common, one additional reason why you might be experiencing pain in your upper right extremity is described here to further illustrate the fact that there are a wide variety of things that often share a common symptom. Syringomyelia is a condition caused by a fluid-filled cyst or syrinx in the spinal cord that can expand over time and, in doing so, cause damage to the spinal cord. A syrinx can be the result of a spinal cord injury, a tumor, or an inflammation. The damage done, which can, in some cases, destroy a part of the spinal cord, can cause weakness and pain in the back and in the extremities, including in many instances the right arm.
No discussion of the causes of arm pain would be complete without some mention of back pain, since the two are often closely related, especially when the back pain is occurring in the upper portion of the back. Quite often when you experience discomfort in the right upper extremity, it isn’t felt in the arm only but may also be felt in the shoulder, the neck, or the upper back. One of the strangest of these causes isn’t due to a disorder in any of these areas but originates between your lungs and your stomach.
4) When You Have Pain in Both Your Right Arm and Your Back
Tightening of the Diaphragm – One of the more unusual causes of arm and back pain – and also one of the causes that can be quite serious – is an abnormal tightening of the diaphragm in the abdomen. This flat, dish-shaped muscle, which separates the rib cage from the lower abdomen, would seem to have little to do with what might be going on in your upper right extremity as far as pain is concerned. The primary function of the diaphragm is to help you breathe. It tightens when you exhale, putting pressure on the lungs, and relaxes when you inhale, enabling the lungs to expand. Other muscles attached to the rib cage and to the spinal column also are in play when you breathe, and if the diaphragm abnormally tightens, these muscles, which are in your back and your shoulders, attempt to compensate. They can quickly become overworked and sore, and this soreness will often extend down into one arm or the other. If the muscles on the right side of your back are the most heavily involved, you may experience discomfort in your right upper limb, especially when you inhale.
Poor Posture – While a disorder affecting the brachial plexus or your diaphragm can be one of the more exotic causes of arm pain, a more down-to-earth cause can be poor posture. In fact, the most common cause of a combination of pain in your arm and in your back is an overload on muscles due to hunching forward for extended periods while working at a computer. Upper body weight-bearing exercises can have the same effect if your posture is not correct while doing them.
Treating Pain in the Right Arm
From the above, it is apparent that the type of treatment required will vary with the cause and can include allowing the muscles or tendons in the arm to rest, placing the arm in a cast, medication, or possibly performing surgery if a nerve or the spinal column lies at the root of the problem. If the discomfort is due to a heart problem, treating the pain is generally of secondary importance. The same would usually be true if the source of the problem is a spinal cord injury or disorder. Fortunately, the more common causes of pain in the arms are both treatable and curable. Since arm pain can sometimes be difficult to diagnose, it will be helpful to your doctor if you can give a description on what the pain is like; where it appears to be centered, if that is indeed the case; and what actions or activities tend to trigger the discomfort.