Pain in the left arm is a common sign of a heart attack.
This may be a signal of an injury that needs treating or, in the worst case, a symptom of a heart attack.
Being aware of the potential causes and characteristics of left arm pain can help someone recognize what the body is reacting to, and when it is necessary to seek medical attention.
A heart attack is the death or damage of a portion of heart muscle due to a lack of oxygen.
Most heart attacks happen when the coronary arteries have narrowed because of a buildup of cholesterol and fatty plaques. If a piece of plaque breaks loose from the artery wall, it can cut off the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart, causing a heart attack.
Left arm pain is one of the most common symptoms of a heart attack.
This may seem strange since the arm muscles are not being damaged. However, the nerves stemming from the heart and those coming from the arm send signals to the same brain cells. This means that the brain is confused about the source of the pain.
This phenomenon, called referred pain, explains why a person experiencing a heart attack might feel arm pain without having chest pain.
The American Heart Association advise calling 911 if sudden left arm pain worsens over the course of a few minutes, or is combined with any of the following symptoms:
- discomfort at the center of the chest that lasts longer than a few minutes, or goes away and then returns
- pain, numbness, or any other unusual discomfort in the back, neck, jaw, or lower abdomen
- shortness of breath, with or without chest pain
- nausea or vomiting
- sudden cold sweats or flushing
Chest discomfort is the most common heart attack symptom in men and women. It takes the form of pressure, tightness, fullness, burning, or gradually building pain.
If one experiences any sudden and unaccounted for combination of nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath, or pain in the lower abdomen, back, or jaw, medical attention should be sought immediately.
Angina is discomfort or pain felt when the heart is getting less oxygen than it needs. Along with left arm pain, symptoms might occur in the shoulders, neck, back, or jaw. Angina can also feel like indigestion.
Angina is not a heart attack, but a sign of a heart problem. Mostly, it results from the coronary arteries being clogged or narrowed.
There are two main forms of angina:
- Stable angina is predictable and manageable. It occurs only during times of physical effort or emotional stress. Then, the heart is working extra hard and needs more oxygen than the narrowed arteries allow. It can be treated with rest and, if needed, an artery-relaxing medication called nitroglycerin.
- Unstable angina is unpredictable and dangerous. It can occur even when resting, meaning that the heart is consistently not getting enough oxygen. Unstable angina is a signal that a heart attack might happen, and it must be evaluated in an emergency room.
Left arm discomfort is probably not heart-related if it has the following characteristics:
- stabbing pain that lasts only a few seconds at a time
- pain brought on by movement or touch
- pain that is only found on a small spot on the arm
- pain that persists without other symptoms for hours or days
Instead, the discomfort could be the symptom of an injury to the bone or tissue in the arm, shoulder, or elbow. Some common skeletomuscular conditions that might cause arm pain include:
Athletes have a higher risk of developing bursitis and tendonitis as they are both caused by joint overuse.
A bursa is a fluid-filled sac that acts as a cushion between a bone and its surrounding soft tissue. Bursitis occurs when the bursa becomes inflamed.
Left arm pain may be a symptom of shoulder bursitis, which usually results from joint overuse. It could also be caused by direct trauma or bursa infection.
This is the inflammation of the connective tissue between muscle and bone. As in bursitis, tendonitis is brought on by repetitive joint use. For this reason, it is seen in tennis players, swimmers, and musicians.
Tendonitis in the shoulder or elbow could be the source of left arm pain.
Rotator cuff tear
The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that hold the shoulder in its socket and help with lifting and rotation.
A tear in the rotator cuff's soft tissue can be very painful. It results from shoulder overuse or direct trauma. Aging is also a risk factor, as it can lead to degeneration of shoulder tissues.
When one of the spine's cushioning discs bursts, it juts out between spinal bones and pushes against the surrounding nerves. If the affected nerves serve the arm, a person may feel arm pain, numbness, or weakness that could be confused with a heart attack.
A common cause of disc herniation is heavy or repetitive lifting.
Arm pain may be a symptom of an undetected broken bone.
Even with a good understanding of these possible skeletomuscular conditions, it can be hard to tell apart injury from a heart attack. Certain risk factors for injury, like age and physical activities, also overlap.
For these reasons, it is important not to try to self-diagnose an injury or rule out a heart problem based on unclear symptoms.
Though arm and shoulder injuries may not be life-threatening, it is still important to have them evaluated by a doctor. Early treatment can allow the tissue or bone to heal before more damage is done.
A cardiac stent is one option for treating blockages in the arteries.
If emergency room doctors decide that 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, blood work, a chest X-ray, and possibly a computed tomography angiography (CTA) scan.
Depending on the situation, an imaging procedure called cardiac catheterization is done, as well. This test allows doctors to see the extent of blockages using a dye injected into the arteries.
Based on the results of this test, doctors may opt for non-invasive treatment. This uses a drug that breaks up blood clots.
More severe blockages may call for surgery. There are many different cardiac procedures, and the factors that go into choosing one are complex. Some potential options for restoring the heart's blood flow include:
- Stent implantation: This is when a wire-mesh tube called a stent is inserted into a narrowed artery to aid the blood flow.
- Angioplasty: This is a procedure when a small balloon is inflated inside a blocked artery, opening it up for blood flow. A stent can also be attached to the balloon and locked into place.
- Bypass surgery: Here, a section of healthy blood vessel is attached to the narrowed artery, diverting blood-flow around the blockage.
Anyone who has been diagnosed with a heart attack or angina will have to make lifestyle changes. This might mean quitting smoking, losing weight, starting an exercise routine, or adjusting their diet to be more heart-healthy.
Doctors may also prescribe cholesterol-lowering, blood-thinning, or blood pressure medications.
Although these changes can be overwhelming at first, they can help prevent further heart damage and cardiac episodes. Making such changes can help a person with heart disease to live a full, healthy life.