heart attack, pain in left arm

A complete guide to finding out if a pain in your left arm is a heart attack

Left arm pain can be caused by a variety of conditions, from ordinary muscle pain to a serious heart attack. Changes or discomfort with the skin, soft tissues, nerves, bones, joints, or blood vessels in the arm can also cause pain. It’s easy to assume a heart attack just from the thought of left arm pain when a very different culprit might be involved. To find out if your pain is heart-related, you need to consider numerous possibilities and factors that increase the risk that it could be a serious condition.

Recognize a heart attack

Notice how bad the pain is.

The pain associated with a heart attack usually feels like pressure or a squeezing. It can be moderate, barely noticeable, or unbearably strong. This pain is often felt in the heart region, traveling to the arm, to the jaw, or to the back.

Watch out for symptoms that don’t show up as pain.

In addition to the pain in your arm, jaw, neck, and back, there are other symptoms that can accompany a heart attack. These include: feeling sick light-headed or dizzy cold sweat shortness of breath or difficulty breathing due to tightness in your chest If you have any of the above symptoms along with your pain, you should see a doctor as soon as possible to rule out a heart attack.

Call the emergency doctor (112) if you suffer from the symptoms described above.

If you are not sure what you are currently suffering from, the best thing to do is to call 112 (Europe-wide; also 144 in Austria and Switzerland) to be taken quickly to a hospital where everything else can be clarified. You should never forget that when a heart attack occurs, time is of the essence and not a second should be wasted as your life is at stake. Take an aspirin® (about 190 mg) while you wait for emergency services, as it can reduce the severity of the heart attack. The active ingredient in Aspirin® (acetylsalicylic acid) prevents more blood from clotting because it is a blood clot in one of the coronary arteries (the blood vessels around the heart) that caused the heart attack. Taking Aspirin® prevents the blood clot from getting bigger. While waiting for the ambulance, you can also take nitroglycerin if you have some. However, this is only recommended if the chest pain is caused by exertion (angina pectoris) and not in the case of a “real” infarction, because NO donors worsen the outcome in hypotensive patients. It can relieve chest pain and help you endure the symptoms until you’re in the hospital. Once there, the doctors can give you additional pain medication such as morphine if necessary.

Undergo a series of examinations.

If you think you’re having a heart attack or other heart-related pain, your doctor will order a series of tests to diagnose and sometimes confirm suspicions. He will use an electrocardiogram (ECG) to check your heart rhythm. In the event of a heart attack, abnormalities will be seen here. You will also have some blood tests, mainly to check your blood for elevated levels of cardiac enzymes, which would indicate excessive heart strain. Depending on your symptoms and how clearly doctors can diagnose you, you may have additional tests. These include an echocardiogram, chest X-ray, angiogram, and/or an EKG.

Analyze the pain

Pay attention to the duration of the pain.

If the pain in your left arm is very brief (a few seconds), it’s very unlikely it’s heart-related. The same applies if the pain lasts for a longer period of time (over days or even weeks). However, if the pain lasts for a few minutes or hours, it could be a heart attack. If the pain keeps coming back at short intervals, you should write down the duration and intensity of the pain on a piece of paper so that you can show this to your doctor. Again, this pain could be heart-related and requires immediate medical attention. If the movement of the rib cage (middle part of the spine) triggers or increases the pain, degenerative disease of the spine is likely to blame, particularly in older people. This pain is probably not cardiac-related. If the pain occurs after activities that put a lot of stress on the arm, the muscles are likely involved. Look at your daily routine. What could have caused the pain?

Consider that the pain in your arm could be angina.

Angina pectoris (AP for short; often just called angina) and the associated pain occur when not enough blood flows to the heart muscle. It is often described as a tearing or spasmodic pressure. You may also experience pain in your shoulders, arms, back, and neck. The symptoms could also resemble digestive problems. Although AP is not usually felt only in the left arm, it is possible. AP is often aggravated or triggered by stress. This can be physical stress (e.g. overexertion from climbing stairs) or emotional stress (e.g. after a heated conversation or a fight at work). If you think you have AP, it’s important to see a doctor as soon as possible. While not as life-threatening as a heart attack, it still requires thorough evaluation and treatment.

Consider other symptoms.

In addition to the pain in your arm, you should pay attention to any other areas where you feel pain. This is one of the most accurate ways to find out if your arm pain is heart-related and has serious underlying causes. A bad heart attack is usually accompanied by the following symptoms: A sudden, excruciating pain in the chest that radiates to the left arm. The pain can occur in either arm but is most commonly felt in the left arm as it is closest to the heart. Pain and tension in the jaw area that is usually felt in the lower jaw. These can occur on both sides or just on one side. Pain that originates in the shoulders and shows up in the shoulder and chest area as leaden heaviness or a feeling of pressure. Dull back pain triggered by pain in the chest, jaw, neck, and arm. It should be noted here that there are also “silent” heart attacks that occur without severe pain.

Identify causes not related to the heart

Check if you feel pain when moving your neck.

If your pain worsens when you move your neck or upper back, you may have cervical spondylosis, or cervical spine degeneration. It is one of the most common causes of left arm pain. More than 90 percent of people over the age of 65 show signs of cervical spondylosis. Spondylosis is a collective term for age-related cracks and wear and tear on the vertebral bodies (in this case primarily in the neck area). This condition occurs when the spinal discs dry out and shrink. In most cases, the symptoms worsen with age, as the spine wears more and more. You can determine the source of your pain by moving your neck and upper spine. If your pain is made worse by exercise, it’s likely related to cervical spine degeneration. During a heart attack, moving or putting pressure on the spine or neck does not usually decrease or increase the pain.

Check if you feel pain when you move your shoulder.

If the pain in your arm is increased by moving your shoulder, you could have shoulder arthritis. Many people who come to the emergency room suspected of having a heart attack actually have the condition. This is a disease that destroys the smooth outer surface of the bone (the cartilage). As the cartilage slowly breaks down, the protective space between the bones also decreases. When you move, the bones rub against each other, leading to pain in the shoulder and/or arm. Although there is no real cure for arthritis in the shoulder, many treatments are available to relieve pain. If this describes your discomfort, don’t worry. While it sounds very serious, the progression of the disease can be prevented.

If your arm function is limited, it’s probably a nerve injury.

The nerves in the arm emerge at the level of the spinal cord in the lower neck and form a bundle of nerves called the brachial plexus. This bundle of nerves divides and leads to the nerves in your arms. Nerve damage in the arms, running from the shoulder to the hand, can cause a variety of pain. However, this is usually accompanied by loss or limitation of arm function (e.g. numbness, tingling or restricted movement). Your arm pain could be nerve-related and have nothing to do with your heart.

Check your blood pressure and pulse.

If they are affected, the peripheral arterial disease could be to blame. It is usually caused by arteriosclerosis and is very common among smokers. A quick visit to your doctor is all it takes to find out if this is the cause. He will take your blood pressure and heart rate to solve the puzzle.

Consider other causes of the pain in your arm.

Consider if you can remember any injuries. The pain in your left arm could be from an arm or shoulder injury sustained in a recent accident. In rare cases, however, much more serious conditions such as cancer can also be responsible for the arm pain. But this is extremely unusual. Contact your doctor if the pain in your arm persists and you can’t find a logical explanation for it. If you want to know more articles about health, you can follow our website.

About the Author

Helen Miller

Helen Miller is a freelance writer at CouponKirin. She covers personal finance topics in a syndicated column that appears in Financial Planning Magazine. Her work has been featured by Market Watch, Digital Journal, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, and Yahoo Finance. Helen has a bachelor’s degree in finance from the University of California, Los Angeles.