If your left arm is feeling heavy, your first thought is very likely about your heart. While pain, heaviness, weakness, or numbness in your left arm are possible indicators of a heart attack, it may not always be the case. That weird discomfort in the left arm could point to something mild as poor posture or to another health condition that needs care. So how do you make sure the heaviness is treated correctly? The first step would be exploring these 7 possible reasons your left arm may be feeling heavy.
1. Bad Posture
Treatment: Correcting your posture – since most desk jobs involve sitting for long periods of time, here’s how you can sit correctly
Bad posture, perhaps while sleeping or sitting for long periods, can result in pinched nerves. As a result, you may experience heaviness followed by pins-and-needles in your left arm.
2. Poor Blood Circulation
Poor circulation is another reason why you may feel numbness or pain in your left arm.
Treatment: Improve your diet, exercise, and avoid smoking, caffeine, and alcohol, which hamper peripheral circulation and damage nerves, leading to pain in the arms and legs. Check with your doctor to detect any underlying condition.1
Circulation becomes restricted when the blood vessels are constricted due to bad posture, trauma, or a lack of healthy nutrients. In some cases, poor circulation may be due to an underlying condition like diabetes, varicose veins, or peripheral artery disease – all of which require treatment.2
Heartburn has nothing to do with your heart but can resemble a heart attack. You may have similar symptoms like heaviness in the chest, arm, neck, or jaw.
Usually, belching will relieve your pain if it is due to heartburn. Since the symptoms differ from person to person, only a medical professional can diagnose your condition correctly.
Treatment: For infrequent heartburn, take over-the-counter antacids and avoid spicy, greasy, acidic foods, and smoking. Finish your meals 2–3 hours before bedtime. While sleeping, keep your head in an elevated position and wear loose clothing. For GERD, take medicines as well.3
In people with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a spasm in the esophagus, which is the tube that connects the throat and stomach, can cause pain or heaviness in the left arm too. In fact, if you regularly have heartburn more than twice a week, you could have GERD and should consult a doctor.
4. Medications Like Chemo And Statins
Some medications are also known to cause arm heaviness. Consult your doctor if you feel heaviness or pain in your arm after beginning a new medication. Often, stopping the medication or reducing the dosage could reduce your symptoms. For instance:
High cholesterol medicines: Sometimes patients taking statins, which are medicines that can bring down LDL cholesterol levels in the blood, report side effects that include muscle and joint pain, or, in serious cases, loss of sensation or tingling in the nerve endings of the hands and feet. Doctors will usually stop the medication for a while and prescribe a lower dosage later.4
Remedy: Have a word with you doctor to find out if your medication is causing arm heaviness. A change in medication may be possible in some cases.
Chemotherapy medicines: Women being treated for breast cancer can develop chemotherapy-associated peripheral neuropathy. Chemotherapy drugs go to all parts of the body and some of them can cause damage to the nerves in the periphery such as in the hands and feet. In such situations, numbness, pain, weakness, sudden, sharp, stabbing, or shocking pain sensations in the arms or legs are common symptoms. Neuropathy must be treated early or it can develop into a long-term problem.5
5. Physical Injury
Physical injury is the most obvious cause of your left arm pain or heaviness. You may have overstretched your ligaments or torn your tendons during a workout or your daily activities. Such cases include:
Treatment: Rest, anti-inflammatory drugs, elevation, restricted use of the joint, wearing elbow bands, gentle strengthening and stretching exercises, massage of the soft tissue, surgery in case the tendon is torn, followed by exercise6
Tendinitis and Bursitis: Tendons, bands of fibrous tissue that connect bones to muscles, are found all over the body. Tendinitis is the inflammation or irritation of a tendon that can occur due to injury or overuse of the painful part.
A bursa is the fibrous sac that works as a cushion between tendons, bones, muscles, or skin. Bursitis is the inflammation or irritation of a bursa that has been injured or overused.
Treatment: Anti-inflammatory drugs, physical and occupational therapy, surgery in severe cases7
Rotator cuff injury: The rotator cuff is the system of four muscles and their tendons on your shoulder blade. The tendons connect the muscles to the ball of your upper arm bone and facilitate movement. Any injury or tear to the tendons can cause a lot of pain and restrict movement of your affected shoulder and arm.
Treatment: Anti-inflammatory drugs, using a wrist brace for support, and stretching and strengthening exercises to relieve the pressure on the wrist8
Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS): This occurs when the median nerve gets compressed. This nerve passes through the carpal tunnel located on the palm side of the wrist and, when compressed, can cause a dull ache in the hand, forearm, or upper arm. It also results in weakness and clumsiness in the hand, among other painful symptoms.
Treatment: Physical therapy, medication, and relaxation techniques9
Thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS): This can also cause pain in the arm, shoulder, and neck. When the blood vessels or nerves located just below the neck get compressed, it can result in weakness, tingling, numbness, and burning along your arm, hand, and fingers. Your arm might even swell. The pain triggering compression can happen between the first rib and collarbone, or between the muscles of your neck and shoulder.
6. Lymphedema (Swelling In The Limbs)
Lymphedema sometimes causes heaviness in the arm. In this condition, lymph, which is a thin, clear fluid circulating throughout the body and removing bacteria and wastes from tissues, sometimes builds up in certain spots, causing edema.
Treatment: Depending on the stage of your lymphedema, treatment includes the use of sleeves, bandages, and pumps to help the lymph flow out of the body. Exercise, weight loss, and skin protection can help the lymphatic system get back to normal.10
Lymphedema is a possible side effect of breast cancer surgery and radiation therapy. In some women, it appears months or even years after cancer treatment ends. In breast cancer patients, lymphedema usually occurs in the arm and hand, and sometimes in the underarm, breast, chest, trunk, and back.
Some of the symptoms of lymphedema are heaviness, pain, tingling, discomfort, or increased warmth in the chest, arm, hand, breast, or underarm areas.
7. Panic Attack
A panic attack can closely resemble a heart attack, with strikingly similar symptoms. In fact, many people with panic attacks end up in the ER, mistaking it for a heart attack.
Treatment: If you have a panic disorder, consult a therapist to manage panic attacks. Exercise regularly and practice yoga, deep breathing, and meditation to strengthen your body’s relaxation response and counter your stress response.11
But unlike in a heart attack, the pain or heaviness during a panic attack is not persistent and will go away when you change positions.
In a heart attack, the pain radiates to your back, neck, hands, and chest. In a panic attack, pain is localized to a spot.
Heart attacks, especially in women, are often misdiagnosed as panic attacks in the ER; so insist on a thorough checkup if you have radiating or persistent pain in your arms or chest.
8. Heart Problems
Of the millions of Americans who visit the ER for chest pain, only 20% are actually diagnosed with a heart attack or angina. But there’s no denying that a heart attack is one of the most widely recognized causes for heaviness in the left arm.12 So, it still pays to be wary and rule out a heart problem if you experience heaviness in the left arm.
Do remember that while all the other causes mentioned here can cause pain in both arms, heart attacks are most likely to affect the left arm.
Symptoms Of A Heart Attack
Alongside heaviness of the left arm, common symptoms of an impending heart attack include pain, discomfort, a feeling of pressure, fullness or squeezing in the center or left side of the chest. It can spread to one or both arms, the neck and shoulders, the back, jaw, and even to the upper part of the stomach. Shortness of breath, cold sweat, dizziness, nausea and vomiting, and unusual tiredness that lasts for days can also indicate an impending attack.
The main difference between a cardiac and non-cardiac reason for left arm heaviness is that in a heart attack, the pain more often than not begins suddenly and remains the same even after you’ve moved the arm around.
- Call 911 or your emergency healthcare number immediately.
- While you wait for help, loosen your clothing, sit or lie down, chew a baby aspirin, if you are not allergic to it.
- Take nitroglycerin if it has already been prescribed to you for chest pain.
- If it’s happening to someone else and they are unconscious, give them CPR if you know how to.
Recognizing the symptoms of a heart attack and seeking medical attention in time could save a life. If the heart does not receive sufficient blood for too long – usually for more than 20 minutes – damage to the heart muscle could be irreversible.13
Remember that symptoms of a heart attack can differ from person to person. Certain symptoms are more common in women than in men. Certain symptoms last for days, begin mildly and gradually intensify over several hours or even days, or are sudden and intense. However, don’t rule out a heart problem if you don’t see these associated symptoms. Classic symptoms of heart attack may be absent in women.14 Diabetics too may have no symptoms at all or very mild ones.
An angina is usually caused by coronary heart disease and is a condition in which the arteries supplying blood and oxygen to the heart muscles are narrowed. Blood supply levels are consequently restricted.
Treatment: When an angina attack is underway, take a nitroglycerin if it has been prescribed already. Take a second one if the pain doesn’t go away in 5 minutes. If it doesn’t improve in 5 minutes, call 911. If you haven’t been prescribed nitroglycerin, call 911 right away.
When this happens, you may feel heaviness or tightness in your chest, shortness of breath, and pain or numbness in your arms, neck, jaw, or back.
While angina pain does not pose an imminent danger to you, it is important to manage the condition so it doesn’t develop into a heart attack in the future.15
|↑1||Peripheral Neuropathy Fact Sheet. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.|
|↑2||Monte, Tom. “The Complete Guide to Natural Healing”. Penguin, 1997.|
|↑3||Acid Reflux. American College of Gastroenterology.|
|↑4||Statins – Side effects. NHS Choices.|
|↑6||Bursitis and Tendinitis. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS).|
|↑7||Rotator Cuff Tears. U.S. National Library of Medicine.|
|↑8||Carpal tunnel syndrome. U.S. National Library of Medicine.|
|↑9||Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. U.S. National Library of Medicine.|
|↑11||Am I having a panic attack or a heart attack? Anxiety and Depression Association of America.|
|↑12||Chest pain: A heart attack or something else? Harvard Medical School.|
|↑13||What Are the Symptoms of a Heart Attack? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.|
|↑14||Heart attacks in women. Harvard Medical School.|
|↑15||Angina. British Heart Foundation.|