Got Arm Muscle Pain? Here are Some Common Causes and Countermeasures
If you have muscle pain in one or both arms, getting in a workout — or doing just about anything, really — can seem impossible. After all, how can you power through a set of biceps curls if you can’t open a door without wincing?
There are several possible causes of muscle pain in the arms. Some signal larger medical issues, but if you lift weights or play sports, the culprit may be easier to identify.
Here are some of the most common causes of muscle pain in the arms — and how to relieve it.
Possible Causes of Muscle Pain in Arms
Assuming you haven’t gotten socked by your big brother, these are the three primary explanations for arm muscle pain.
1. A hard workout
“The biggest cause of muscle pain in the arm would be exercise-induced muscle soreness,” says Jasmine Marcus, P.T., D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a strength and conditioning specialist and physical therapist in Ithaca, NY.
Also known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) — exercise-induced muscle soreness is familiar to athletes of all experience levels. DOMS is caused by microscopic tears in muscle tissue resulting from the trauma of strenuous physical activity, and presents as soreness that starts 12-24 hours after a workout.
DOMS typically surfaces when you expose your muscles to new challenges. If you have muscle pain in one or both arms, it may be that you tried a new arm exercise; added more weight, reps, or sets to your routine; or performed eccentric upper-body exercises (e.g., moves that emphasize the lengthening portion of an exercise). These are all scenarios that typically cause DOMS-level muscle damage.
2. A pulled muscle
If you push yourself too hard, or jump into exercise without warming up, you also risk straining your muscles. A muscle strain (also known as a pulled muscle) is characterized by the overstretching or tearing of muscle fibers.
Unlike DOMS, pain or soreness from a pulled muscle is immediate. How long it lasts depends on the severity of the strain. (Here’s how to figure out if you have DOMS or a pulled muscle.)
3. An injured shoulder or elbow
Muscle pain in the arms can also be caused by pain or injury in the shoulder. “Shoulder pain very commonly refers pain down the arm,” Marcus says.
Shoulder arthritis and tendinitis (a.k.a. impingement syndrome), for example, are sometimes felt in the biceps, which originates at the shoulder. “People will think they have a biceps injury, but upon examination it becomes clear that their biceps is fine and the injury is actually in the shoulder itself,” Marcus explains. (Similarly, elbow tendinitis can cause muscle pain above or below the elbow.)
Those with shoulder or elbow tendinitis who haven’t experienced a traumatic injury often can’t identify a specific event that caused their pain. Instead, “it’s more of a repetitive stress where those tissues are continuously irritated,” says Michelle Steege, D.P.T., O.C.S., physical therapist at Motion Minnesota.
Your tissues may become irritated when you do too much, too soon (like when you overdo the biceps curls). Further, if your muscles aren’t strong enough to handle a given load, they may outsource that stress to the joints, aggravating the connective tissue.
How Do You Relieve Sore Arm Muscles?
If you can identify the cause of your arm pain, you can take the all-important next step of addressing it. But if the pain doesn’t resolve — or you’re facing a more serious issue — seek help from a medical professional.
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)
The best way to address DOMS is to give your sore muscles a day (or more) off so they can repair and grow back stronger. But you’ll also want to keep moving with a low-grade activity like walking, yoga, or swimming. “This will increase circulation and help decrease some of the soreness,” Marcus says.
Stretching, foam rolling, and massage are also proven methods to temporarily ease DOMS pain and boost mobility while muscles heal. And temperature strategically applied — cold just after a workout to stave off inflammation, heat between workouts to increase circulation — can also help with recovery.
If you suspect you’ve pulled a muscle, your best move is to consult a physical therapist or orthopedist. If you try to fix it on your own, you could end up creating more damage.
While you’re waiting for an appointment, give yourself a head start by employing the RICE method:
- Rest: Take a break from exercise, or at least avoid exercises that target the muscle in question, and allow the injured muscle to rest.
- Ice: Apply something cold to the muscle to reduce swelling.
- Compress: Introduce pressure to the affected area to further limit swelling.
- Elevate: Raise the injured muscle above heart level to prevent more swelling.
Shoulder or elbow pain
This is another instance in which you’d have to see a physical therapist or orthopedist for help, Marcus says. Your treatment plan may include rest, ice packs, pain-relieving medications, and a series of physical therapy exercises to maintain your range of motion. If the pain is bad enough, your doctor may offer you a cortisone injection.
If your shoulder or elbow pain was caused by a muscle imbalance, a physical therapist may be able to suggest exercises to build up lagging muscle groups. “[Physical therapists] spend a lot of time focusing on balancing things out, and trying to get you activating those muscles that aren’t functioning as well so everything can work together,” Steege says.