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Why Does Your Left Arm Feel Heavy?

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Why Does Your Left Arm Feel Heavy?

If your left arm feels heavy or painful, you may start worrying about heart problems. But the heart is not always to blame for the weird sensation in the left hand. You may have overexercised at the gym or had an injury; you may be having a panic attack; you may even have heartburn. The symptoms of all these conditions mimic the symptoms of a heart attack and other heart problems. Some medication can also cause heaviness in the left hand. It's important, though, to see your doctor to rule out heart issues if you do have left arm heaviness.

If your left arm is feeling heavy, your first thought is very likely about your heart. While pain, heaviness, 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 some of the reasons why your left arm may be feeling heavy.

Why Your Left Arm Feel Heavy And Weak

1. Bad Posture Or 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. Some such cases include:

Tendinitis or bursitis is often a cause of left arm heaviness. 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.

What next: If the tendon is torn, surgery followed by exercise may be required to repair it. Otherwise, the focus in both conditions is to first reduce pain and inflammation with rest, anti-inflammatory drugs, elevation, and restricted use of the joint. You may also be advised protective devices such as elbow bands. Gentle strengthening and stretching exercises, and massage of the soft tissue may be suggested next.1

Rotator cuff injury is yet another cause of shoulder and arm pain. 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.

What next: Depending on the extent of damage, doctors may suggest surgery to treat the condition. Non-surgical treatment of rotator cuff injury includes anti-inflammatory drugs and physical or occupational therapy.2

Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) 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.

What next: Treatment involves taking anti-inflammatory drugs, using a wrist brace for support, and doing stretching and strengthening exercises to help relieve the pressure on the wrist.3

Thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS) 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.

What next: Depending on the cause, doctors suggest physical therapy, medication, and relaxation techniques.4

Awkward posture can also be the culprit. 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.

What next: Correcting your posture is the best cure for this trigger.

2. Lymphedema

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. 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.

What next: Depending on what stage your lymphedema is diagnosed at, treatment includes the use of sleeves, bandages, and pumps to help the lymph flow out of the body. Exercise, weight loss, and skin protection are other ways to help the lymphatic system get back to normal.5

3. 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. 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. Also, 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.

What next: If you are diagnosed with a panic disorder, consult a therapist who can help you with coping mechanisms to manage panic attacks in future. Exercising regularly and practicing yoga, deep breathing, and meditation can help strengthen your body’s relaxation response and counter your stress response.6

4. Poor Circulation

Poor circulation is another reason why you may feel numbness or pain in your left arm. Circulation becomes restricted when the blood vessels are constricted due to trauma or 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.7

What next: Your doctor will prescribe medication if an underlying condition is to blame. Improving your diet and being physically active will help improve circulation. So will avoiding smoking, caffeine, and alcohol. These stimulants can hamper peripheral circulation and cause nerve damage, leading to pain in the arms and legs.8

5. Heartburn

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.

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.

What next: Infrequent heartburn can be relieved with over-the-counter antacids and some lifestyle modifications:

  • Avoid foods and beverages that usually cause heartburn – including chocolate, coffee, peppermint, tomato products, greasy or spicy foods, pepper, and citrus juices.
  • Stop smoking since tobacco not only inhibits saliva, it could also trigger stomach acid production and cause the muscle between the esophagus and the stomach to relax, resulting in acid reflux.
  • Finish your meals 2–3 hours before bedtime.
  • While sleeping, try to prevent reflux by keeping your head in an elevated position. Wedge something suitable under the mattress.
  • Lose weight if you’re overweight.
  • Avoid tight clothing.

GERD treatment requires medication in addition to similar lifestyle changes.9

6. Medications

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:

  • 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.10
  • 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.11

What next: 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.

7. Ruling Out Cardiac 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.

Symptoms Of A Heart Attack

Alongside heaviness of the left arm, some 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 could also feel like indigestion or heartburn. The symptom usually lasts for a few minutes, or it comes and goes away. The feelings could be mild or severe. If this symptom occurs frequently or while at rest, it is almost a sure sign of a heart attack.
  • The pain or discomfort could spread to one or both arms, the neck and shoulders, the back, jaw, and even to the upper part of the stomach.
  • Sometimes, shortness of breath may be the only symptom before a heart attack, or it could occur before or along with pain and discomfort in the chest. This symptom could occur even while at rest or during some light physical activity.
  • In addition to shortness of breath, pain in the chest, back, shoulders, and jaw, women are more likely to have nausea and vomiting, and unusual tiredness that lasts for days.
  • Breaking out in cold sweat could be a symptom, and so could sudden dizziness or light-headedness.

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.

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. In women, certain symptoms last for days while some people have no symptoms at all. Symptoms could begin mildly and gradually intensify over several hours or even days, or they could also be sudden and intense. However, don’t rule out a heart problem if you don’t see these associated symptoms. It is still important to consult a doctor because, sometimes, classic symptoms may be absent in a heart attack, especially 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. 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

References   [ + ]

1. Bursitis and Tendinitis. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS).
2. Rotator Cuff Tears. U.S. National Library of Medicine.
3. Carpal tunnel syndrome. U.S. National Library of Medicine.
4. Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. U.S. National Library of Medicine.
5. Lymphedema. Breastcancer.org.
6. Am I having a panic attack or a heart attack? Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
7. Monte, Tom. “The Complete Guide to Natural Healing”. Penguin, 1997.
8. Peripheral Neuropathy Fact Sheet. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
9. Acid Reflux. American College of Gastroenterology.
10. Neuropathy. Breastcancer.org.
11. Statins – Side effects. NHS Choices.
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.