Is left arm pain always a symptom of a heart attack?

Published 11:09 am Monday, August 22, 2022

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For decades we’ve been told that if a person is experiencing pain in their left arm, they should not disregard it, especially if that pain is accompanied by chest pressure, which many victims have described as having an elephant sitting on their chest. These may be symptoms of a heart attack and often requires urgent medical treatment. That advice remains true especially if the person is also experiencing any of these additional symptoms such as pain in the shoulders, jaw, or abdomen, are experiencing excessive sweating, nausea, or vomiting. If any of these symptoms are present, don’t wait. Call 9-1-1 immediately.


While left arm pain and numbness are and remain major concerns for a possible cardiac event, there are many other causes and conditions that may result in similar symptoms including a narrowing of the arteries in the arm that creates intermittent pain or cramping; a pinched nerve; peripheral neuropathy which occurs in about 50% of people with diabetes; cervical spine narrowing or stenosis which may be due to a herniated (bulging) disc: an injury to the elbow which may be due to overuse as is often the case with tennis elbow; and from diseases like multiple sclerosis (MS) and Lyme disease. All of these can present symptoms of left arm pain or numbness.

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Treatment for arm pain and numbness depends on the cause. For example, a person can generally treat a mild elbow injury with rest, ice, and OTC pain medication like Ibuprofen or Naproxen if those drugs don’t interfere with other prescribed medications being taken. Other conditions, if not cardiac related, may require ongoing management to control the symptoms and prevent further complications if the arm pain or numbness is not going away on its own, or if there are additional symptoms


If anyone suspects that they may be experiencing a heart attack, especially if they have symptoms that include left arm pain and numbness along with chest pains, don’t wait.  Those are often indications of a serious medical emergency and 9-1-1 should be called immediately.  If it is a heart attack, you want to receive proper treatment within the first 60-minutes, known as the “Golden Hour” to mitigate damage to the heart or vessels, and a quick response may possibly save your life.  If it turns out to be something other than a cardiac event, having called for help may result in other proper treatment options for whatever caused the initial pain or numbness.


Don’t ever worry about calling 9-1-1 if you suspect you’re having a sudden medical event.  You may not get a second chance if the issue is truly serious. Even if you’re fortunate enough to have things turn out to be non-life-threatening, making that call is far better than failing to do so and wishing that you or someone had because of the outcome.


Ron Kauffman is a Consultant & Expert Speaker on Issues of Aging.