So you know that left arm pain with chest pain, nausea, sweating might mean a heart attack.
But what if your ONLY symptom is unexplained left arm pain?
First off, even when pain in the left arm is indeed accompanied by other concerning symptoms such as dizziness, cold clammy skin and/or shortness of breath, this doesn’t necessarily mean you’re having a heart attack – though it is highly suggestive of serious heart disease.
Even more difficult to speculate on is the cause of new-onset pain in the left arm when that’s your only symptom—and there’s no reason to believe it’s from an injury.
“There is no surefire way to know if this is cardiac or not,” says Dr. Kavitha Chinnaiyan, MD, a cardiologist at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, MI.
Dr. Chinnaiyan is founder of Heal Your Heart, Free Your Soul, an online, yoga-based prevention program.
Only One Symptom: Pain in the Left Arm – And You Haven’t Fallen on It or Strained It During Exercise
What should you do?
Dr. Chinnaiyan continues, “If one has risk factors for heart disease (diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high stress and smoking, for instance), it is better to assume that it may be cardiac and get checked.
“Arm pain, tingling and numbness can also result from nerve compression in the upper part of the spine. Musculoskeletal problems can also cause these symptoms.”
Put Everything in Context
If you’re having left arm pain and no other symptoms, you need to put this in perspective.
• Did you recently bang the arm into a door frame?
• Did you recently fall on it during sport?
• Is it tender to the touch?
• Does it hurt more with certain movements? These first four issues point away from heart trouble and towards a musculoskeletal problem.
• Is its entire length very swollen? This can mean a blood clot in the neck.
• Does physical exertion that EXCLUDES the arm bring on the pain?
For example, it usually begins hurting when you run, walk up a flight of stairs, pedal a stationary bike, but subsides when you stop? (suspicious for heart trouble)
• Does the pain occur only when you’re at rest and doesn’t change with movement, and there’s no history of injury? (suspicious for heart trouble)
• Is the pain very short in duration (seconds) and has been coming and going throughout the day? (unlikely to be heart related)
• Has the discomfort been ongoing for weeks or even days? (unlikely to be heart related)
• Was the hurting present upon getting out of bed in the morning, suggesting that you slept on it funny?
• Is it aggravated with neck movement? This suggests a problem with the cervical vertebrae.
• Does shoulder movement aggravate it? Arthritis can cause this.
If you have risk factors for heart attack or even coronary artery disease, and you’ve been experiencing just one unexplained symptom lately—left arm pain—the first doctor you should see is a cardiologist.
Dr. Chinnaiyan has authored and co-authored 100+ manuscripts and abstracts. She has served as the Chair of the Board of Directors of the American Heart Association of Southeast Michigan.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.