Pain in the Arm Can Mean Pain in the Neck
Paul R. Gause, MD, is an Orthopedic Spine Surgeon on staff at Banner Estrella Medical Center.
Question: I have been suffering from severe pain in my arm, but my doctor says it isn’t coming from the arm; it’s coming from the neck. Can you explain this to me and tell me what I can do to get relief?
Answer: Arm pain originating from the neck is a result of compression of one or more nerves as they exit the spinal column, often caused by a disc herniation. This commonly results in neck pain as well. Although neck and arm pain can come from the same source, they can be two separate problems. Neck pain can be caused by a number of things such as arthritic change in the joints of the neck or degenerative disc disease that causes pain in the neck.
Sometimes people come in with complaints of neck and arm pain, but the actual problem is with the shoulders, causing spasm of the muscles around the neck.
I see a lot of people with acute pain from herniated discs. About 80 to 85 percent of people with acute arm and neck pain from a cervical herniated disc will get better over time without surgery. Physical therapy, chiropractic care or steroid injections around the nerves can offer relief. Having said that, there are some people who have chronic radicular pain, which is pain radiating down the arm from herniated discs. These patients may be good candidates for surgery.
Cervical spine surgery can be very successful. In the hands of a trained spine surgeon it is very safe. As with any surgery there are very small risks but it can provide significant pain relief and it is definitely an option for people suffering from this type of pain.
Older individuals suffering from arthritic changes in the joints, causing nerve compression, usually have chronic pain and sometimes don’t respond as well to non-operative treatment. Although we still try non-operative measures, it is more common for them to seek surgical relief.
Ask your doctor or spine surgeon if surgery is the answer, or if there are non-surgical options that would provide the relief you seek.