The term “pinched nerve” is not a true medical term. Nonetheless, people often use it to describe an injury that results from compression, constriction, or stretching of a nerve or set of nerves.

This article outlines the symptoms and causes of a pinched nerve in the arm.

We also provide information on the diagnosis, treatment, and management of this type of condition.

A man massages a pinched nerve in the arm.Share on Pinterest
People may experience pain in the arm, wrist, or hand, depending on the affected nerve.

A pinched nerve in the arm can cause a range of symptoms.

Some possible symptoms that a person may experience include:

  • radiating pain from the site of the pinched nerve
  • tingling, numbness, or a loss of sensation in the arm
  • muscle weakness in the arm

Symptoms also vary, depending on the nerve affected.

There are three main nerves that run through the arm, past the elbow and wrist, and down to the hand.

They are:

  • The median nerve: This nerve runs down the center of a person’s arm.
  • The ulnar nerve: This nerve extends along the outer edge of the arm, in line with the little finger. It becomes aggravated when a person hits their “funny bone.”
  • The radial nerve: This nerve extends along the inside of the arm, in line with the thumb.

There are many nerves in a person’s arm. The cause of a pinched nerve depends on which nerve is compressed, constricted, or stretched.

Read on for an outline of some possible causes of a pinched nerve in the arm.

Carpal tunnel syndrome

The carpal tunnel is a passageway of ligaments, tendons, and bones that extend from the wrist to the hand.

The median nerve passes through the carpal tunnel and provides sensation to the thumb, ring, and middle finger. It also provides sensation to the inner edge of the ring finger.

Carpal tunnel syndrome is a condition that results from long-term or chronic compression of the median nerve within the carpal tunnel. It is a common cause of symptoms of a pinched nerve in the arm.

Carpal tunnel syndrome can result from injury to the wrist, or as a result of frequent and repetitive hand and wrist motions.

Some possible symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome include:

  • Sensations of numbness, tingling, or burning that mainly affect the thumb, index, middle, and ring fingers.
  • Pain or tingling that may radiate up the forearm toward the shoulder.
  • Weakness or poor motor control of the affected hand.

Many people report that moving or shaking their hands can provide temporary symptom relief.

Cubital tunnel syndrome

The cubital tunnel is a passageway of bones, muscles, and ligaments that extends from the elbow joint, down through the forearm.

The ulnar nerve passes through the cubital tunnel, innervating the little finger, the outer edge of the ring finger, and the outer edge of the palm.

Cubital tunnel syndrome is the medical term for chronic compression of the ulnar nerve within the cubital tunnel.

This condition may cause the following symptoms:

  • numbness or tingling in the ring or little finger, especially when the elbow is bent
  • aching pain on the inside of the elbow
  • hand pain
  • weak grip

The following factors can increase a person’s risk of developing cubital tunnel syndrome:

  • previous elbow dislocation or fracture
  • bone spurs or arthritis of the elbow
  • swelling of the elbow joint
  • cysts near the elbow joint

Repetitive or prolonged activities that require a person to bend or flex their elbow also increase the risk of cubital tunnel syndrome.

Radial tunnel syndrome

The radial tunnel is a passageway of bone and muscle that runs along the upper part of the forearm.

The radial nerve runs through the radial tunnel. It enables the movement of the wrists and fingers and provides sensation to the skin on the forearm and back of the hand.

Radial tunnel syndrome is the medical term for compression of the radial nerve within the radial tunnel. In some people, the nerve slides back and forth within the tunnel, causing intermittent irritation.

People who have radial tunnel syndrome typically experience pain in the forearm, just below the elbow.

The pain may worsen with the following activities:

  • extending the elbow
  • turning the forearm
  • flexing the wrist

When working to diagnose a pinched nerve in the arm, a doctor will ask about a person’s symptoms and medical history. The doctor may also order one of the following diagnostic tests:

  • X-rays: These imaging tests can help to identify bone spurs or other bone-related issues that may be compressing a nerve within the arm.
  • CT scans or MRI scans: These imaging tests can help to identify whether nerve compression is the result of damage to soft tissues, such as a bulging or herniated disk.
  • Electromyography (EMG): This test records electrical activity within muscle tissues. A doctor can combine EMG results with nerve conduction studies to find out whether nerve damage is causing a person’s symptoms or compression of a nerve root in the spine.

The treatment for a pinched nerve in the arm depends partly on the cause of the condition, and the frequency and severity of a person’s symptoms.

Some potential treatment options are:

  • Medication: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen or naproxen, can help reduce swelling around the nerve. This may help to alleviate irritation.
  • Rest: Wherever possible, a person should rest the arm to reduce further irritation of the affected nerve.
  • Brace or splints: A brace or splint can help keep the arm in a position that reduces compression or irritation of the affected nerve. This can help to alleviate symptoms or prevent them from recurring.
  • Surgery: If nonsurgical treatments do not resolve the symptoms of a pinched nerve in the arm, a doctor may recommend surgical options. There are a few surgical procedures that will relieve pressure on a pinched nerve in the arm, and these vary depending on which nerve is affected.

A person should seek the advice of a doctor before undertaking any stretches or exercises for a pinched nerve. Performing these activities incorrectly can cause further damage to the nerve.

A doctor will recommend appropriate stretches and exercises dependent on:

  • the cause of the pinched nerve
  • the type and severity of symptoms
  • the context in which they occur

The following tips can help a person to manage the symptoms of a pinched nerve:

  • avoiding spending too long in one position
  • sleeping so as not to put pressure on the nerve
  • avoiding leaning on elbows or resting an arm on an open window while driving
  • taking regular breaks from repetitive hand movements, such as when typing, playing video games, or knitting
  • gently stretching the arms and wrists during breaks from repetitive hand activities

A pinched nerve will usually heal by itself without medical treatment. However, a person should see a doctor if their symptoms persist for more than a couple of days, despite rest and appropriate home treatment.

A person should seek emergency medical treatment if they experience either of the following:

  • sudden and unexpected weakness in an arm, which may be a sign of stroke
  • sudden pain in the left arm, which may indicate a heart attack

A person who thinks they may be having a stroke or heart attack should phone 911 right away. Prompt treatment of either condition reduces the risk of complications or death.

A pinched nerve is a nerve that has become compressed by its surrounding tissues. Compression of a nerve in the arm may cause uncomfortable and painful sensations in the arm, wrist, or hand.

A pinched nerve will usually resolve without medical intervention. However, a person should see a doctor if their symptoms persist beyond a couple of days.

A doctor may recommend medical imaging tests to help diagnose the cause of a pinched nerve. Treatment may involve rest, medications, and the use of a brace or splint. In some cases, a doctor may recommend surgery to release pressure on the nerve.