Arm pain used to be a malady that affected people with physically demanding jobs — from construction workers to painters. Sportspersons, especially basketball players who used their arms a lot, too complained of it.
But today the near-constant use of gadgets such as mobiles and laptops has ensured cases of arm and neck pain are widespread, doctors say.
Take the case of Reva Kumar, 35, a homemaker and an artist from Delhi.
She started having arm pain frequently during the last three years. “It seemed to worsen during the Covid times when everybody was home and the chores seemed unending,” says Kumar. “I went through the usual route of painkillers and therapies — with no relief. I then decided to do some self-care, and minimised chores. I took a break from my passion – painting — for almost three months before I noticed some improvement.”
Kumar, who is currently recovering, undergoes physiotherapy at home three time a week.
For many people, pain in the arms can include an ache in the wrist, elbow or even the shoulder. It can also happen in people with underlying health issues or in those who have experienced a severe injury.
“I have seen recently that both young and middle-aged people are complaining of neck and arm pain,” says pain management expert Dr GP Dureja, director at Delhi Pain Management Centre. “It can affect corporate professionals and students and workers who lift heavy weights such as labourers and construction workers.”
Causes of pain
Dr Dureja blames “poor lifestyle” as a major cause for arm pain.
“The most important cause of this is our poor lifestyle, bad posture, use of excessively heavy pillows, watching mobile screens and sitting without support for prolonged periods of time,” he says. “Impingement of nerves in the spine causing excruciating radiating pain in the arm is often the result of using thick pillows and persistent forward bending while working on a computer.”
He says the lifting of heavy weights results in a frozen shoulder, with severe pain transmitting to the arm. “Often diabetes also results in a frozen shoulder, which may persist for long periods,” Dr Dureja says. “Sportspersons often suffer from tennis elbow pain, wrist pain and forearm pain because of injuries.”
The symptoms could be tingling, numbness, sharp pain, swelling, stiffness, reddish tinge on the area or swollen lymph nodes under the arm. Very often the pain can start because of pinched nerves when a nerve has too much pressure on it from either bones, muscle, cartilage, tendons or sprains or tendonitis (inflammation of the tendon).
Arm pain can also occur because of rotator cuff injury (common in people such painters and basketball players) or if you have broken bones. In some cases, it can be because of rheumatoid arthritis too.
Another important underlying cause can be if one has angina or heart pain, when the heart isn’t getting enough oxygen and can cause pain in the arm and shoulder as well as pressure in the chest, neck and back.
“A large majority of patients coming with arm pain have cervical disc herniation,” says Dr Vikas Tyagi, consultant, interventional pain management, Noida Pain Management Clinic. “Poor posture and long hours of sitting with a flexed neck along with weak neck muscles (due to inactive lifestyle) predispose many young patients to suffer from it. Another common cause of upper arm pain, especially in the elderly, is due to shoulder injury or underlying diabetes. Lastly, a lack of vitamin B12, vitamin D and undiagnosed thyroid problems can also cause this symptom.”
It is important to identify the cause of arm pain for the treatment to have lasting results.
“The treatment includes some nerve medicines, postural and ergonomic adjustments (like bringing laptop screen to eye level) and nerve blocks like cervical facet blocks, to name a few,” says Dr Tyagi. “The best and most long-lasting results are achieved with regular exercises to strengthen neck muscles and adequate intake of vitamin D.”
Doctors say physical examinations, X-rays, ultrasounds, MRI, CT scans and blood tests can help in detecting arm pain that could also be due to diabetes or certain conditions that cause inflammation of the joints or even a heart condition. For every individual the tests will be different according to the assessment.
Treatments can vary from pain medication, anti-inflammatory medication, physical therapy, surgery or even home remedies like rest, elevation of arm, applying ice and compression.
“Generally, we use a multi-pronged method to manage arm pain which includes immobilisation with splints, physiotherapy, medicines and injections (if needed),” says Dr Dureja.