Arm, elbow and hand pain 

Arm pain is common and usually caused by an injury or fall. It can often be managed with rest and over-the-counter painkillers.

If the pain persists even after resting and taking painkillers, or if you have other symptoms and are uncertain of the cause, see your GP.

In the meantime, you can read this page to learn about the common causes of arm, elbow and hand pain. It may give you a better idea of the problem

  • Managing your pain

    If your arm has suddenly started hurting but you don't think the cause is serious, try caring for it by:

    • holding an ice pack (a pack of frozen peas in a tea towel also works well) to your arm for 15-20 minutes every few hours for the first couple of days
    • taking over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, to relieve the pain and any inflammation
    • resting the arm and keeping it raised for as long as possible (try resting it on cushions) to help reduce any swelling and pain
  • When to get immediate medical help

    See your GP immediately if:

    • See your GP if your arm pain doesn't improve after several days, or if there's increasing redness, swelling or pain.
    • your arm pain is brought on by exercise and relieved with rest; it may be a sign of angina (restricted blood supply to the heart)
    • you think you may have a broken arm (but aren't sure)
    • your arm becomes red, hot and swollen over a period of a few hours, and you start to feel generally unwell and develop a high temperature; you may have an infection

    Call 999 for an ambulance if:

    • the pain has come on suddenly and your chest feels like it's being squeezed (you may be having a heart attack or stroke)
    • you have obviously broken your arm (it looks the wrong shape)
  • Causes and treatments

  • Tennis elbow or golfer's elbow

    Tennis elbow and golfer's elbow are conditions that cause pain around the outside or inside of the elbow. They often occur after strenuous overuse of the muscles and tendons near the elbow joint (for example, after playing tennis or golf).

    The pain caused by tennis elbow or golfer's elbow can last for several weeks or months, but will eventually get better.

    Click here to find out more about tennis elbow.

  • Simple sprain and treatment

    If you think your pain has been caused by doing more activity than you're used to, you may have simply sprained your arm. This means the arm tissues have been stretched, twisted or torn, but aren't permanently damaged.

    Avoid exercising the arm and care for it at home using painkillers and an ice pack until the pain goes away.

  • Bursitis

    Repetitive movement of the arm can cause a build-up of fluid over the elbow joint, known as olecranon bursitis (the olecranon is the bony tip of the elbow). This results in pain and swelling.

    Most cases of bursitis can be successfully treated with painkillers at home, but some cases will be complicated by infections and may need antibiotics (this is more common after sustaining a scratch or penetrating injury to the arm). The pain will usually improve within a few weeks, although the swelling may take longer to completely disappear.

  • Squashed or trapped nerve

    Sometimes, the general "wear and tear" that occurs in the joints and bones of the spine as a person gets older can cause the nerves to have less room as they exit from the spine (some people say "squashed" or "trapped"). This can cause pain that radiates from the neck to the arms, and sometimes also pins and needles.

    Arm pain caused like this varies from person to person, but it's typical to have good days and bad days. In most cases, symptoms can be controlled using over-the-counter medication, such as ibuprofen or paracetamol, and exercise.

    A trapped nerve can also occur in the arm itself. This can sometimes occur in the wrist or elbow.

  • Angina

    Angina is a heart condition caused when the blood supply to the muscles of the heart is restricted. It usually occurs when the arteries supplying the heart become hardened and narrowed.

    Angina usually causes a dull, heavy or tight pain in the chest that can sometimes spread to the left arm, neck, jaw or back. The pain is usually triggered by physical activity or stress and often only lasts for a few minutes.

    However, sometimes angina may only be felt as pain in the arm. This is why it's important to see your GP as soon as possible if your arm pain comes on after exercise and is relieved with rest. Angina is a serious warning sign that you have an increased risk of more serious conditions, such as a heart attack or stroke.

  • Repetitive strain injury

    Repetitive strain injury may be diagnosed if your arm or elbow pain seems to be caused by a repetitive task and then fades when the task is stopped. It often occurs in people who work with computers or carry out repetitive manual work.

    Sometimes, the pain is caused by an underlying problem, such as bursitis or tendonitis.

  • Carpal tunnel syndrome

    Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) is a common condition that causes a tingling sensation, numbness, and sometimes pain in the hand and fingers.

    These sensations usually develop gradually and start off being worse during the night. They tend to affect the thumb, index finger and middle finger.

    Other symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome include:

    • pins and needles (paraesthesia)
    • thumb weakness
    • a dull ache in the hand or arm

    Read about the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome.

    Download our patient leaflet - Carpel tunnel syndrome

  • Arthritis

    Arthritis is a common condition that causes pain and inflammation in a joint.

    Osteoarthritis

    Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis in the UK. It often affects three main areas of the hand:

    • base of the thumb
    • joints closest to the fingertips
    • middle joints of the fingers

    The fingers may become stiff, painful and swollen, and bumps may develop on the finger joints. Over time, the pain may decrease and eventually disappear altogether, although the bumps and swelling can still remain.

    The fingers may bend sideways slightly at the affected joints. Painful cysts may develop on the backs of the fingers.

    In some cases, a bump may also develop at the base of the thumb, where it joins the wrist. This can be painful, making it difficult to perform manual tasks such as writing, opening jars or turning keys.

    Osteoarthritis also commonly affects the knees and hips, so is probably the cause if you have pain in other joints as well.

    Rheumatoid arthritis

    The hands and wrists can also be affected by rheumatoid arthritis.

    Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease. This means that your immune system (which usually fights infection) attacks the cells that line your joints by mistake, making them swollen, stiff and painful.

    The hand pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis is usually a throbbing and aching pain. It is often worse in the mornings and after a period of inactivity.

  • A ganglion

    A ganglion is a fluid-filled swelling that develops near a joint or a tendon, ranging in size from a pea to a golf ball.

    It looks and feels like a smooth, soft lump under the skin. It is made up of a thick, jelly-like fluid, called synovial fluid, which surrounds joints and tendons to lubricate and cushion them during movement.

    Ganglions are most common on the wrists (particularly the back of the wrist), hands and fingers.

    They are generally harmless, but can sometimes be painful, especially if they are next to a nerve.

  • De Quervain's disease

    De Quervain's disease is a painful condition that affects tendons where they run through a tunnel on the thumb side of the wrist.

    The sheath surrounding the tendon becomes swollen and thick, and moving your thumb will be very painful.

    The cause isn't understood. Some sources claim it is a type of tenosynovitis (see below) or tendonitis, but this is not true. De Quervain's disease is not associated with inflammation.

    Some mild cases get better on their own after a few weeks of rest and avoiding the activity that triggered it. A wrist splint or a corticosteroid injection may help.

    Severe cases may need to be treated with surgery, which involves widening the tunnel through which the tendon passes.

  • Trigger finger or thumb

    Trigger finger is a condition that affects the tendons in the hand. When the affected finger or thumb is bent towards the palm, the tendon gets stuck and the finger clicks or locks. The exact cause is not known.

    The symptoms can include pain, stiffness, clicking and a small lump in the palm at the base of the affected finger or thumb.

    If you think you may have trigger finger, make an appointment to see your GP, so they can examine your hand and offer advice about treatment. 

    In some people, trigger finger may get better without treatment.

  • Tenosynovitis

    Tenosynovitis is pain and inflammation of the sheath that surrounds a tendon. It's a relatively rare cause of hand pain that can affect the wrist or the fingers.

    The cause is not always known. It may be brought on by a series of small injuries to the tendon, a previous injury or strain, infection, or rheumatoid arthritis.

    It's important to rest the hand or keep the tendons still, to allow recovery. You might be able to relieve the pain and inflammation by applying heat or cold to the area, and by taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen.

    Injections of corticosteroids (steroid medication) can sometimes help.

    Tenosynovitis caused by infection will need treating with antibiotics.

    After the hand has recovered, strengthening exercises using the muscles around the affected tendon will help prevent the injury returning. Your GP or physiotherapist will be able to advise about this.

  • A fracture

    It is often obvious when you have broken your finger or wrist bone, as your hand will be extremely painful, and there may also be swelling or tenderness around the injured area.

    If you think you have broken a bone, go to your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department.

  • Less common causes of arm pain

    Less commonly, arm pain may be caused by one of the following conditions or injuries:

    • de Quervain's tenosynovitis – inflammation of the tendons on the inside of the wrist
    • cervical rib – where you have an extra rib above your normal top rib, which may cause pain, tingling or numbness in the arm
    • inflammation of the nerves in the arm (known as 'brachial and ulnar neuritis') – this may occur after shingles
    • damage to the nerves connecting the spine and the arm (a 'brachial plexus injury') – this can be caused by over-stretching the arm or shoulder and most often occurs during contact sports or a motor vehicle accident
    • arthritis of the elbow – which can cause the elbow joint to become inflamed (swollen, warm and painful) and feel stiff
    • broken arm, usually caused by a fall onto an outstretched arm