Children's Hospital Colorado

Arm Pain

Urgent or Emergency Care?

If you believe your child needs immediate attention and you have concerns for a life-threatening emergency, call 911. Not sure what counts as urgent and what's an emergency when your child is sick or injured? When it can't wait, know where to take your kids.

Help Me Decide

  • Pain in the arm (shoulder to fingers)
  • Includes shoulder, elbow, wrist and finger joints
  • Includes minor muscle strains from hard work or sports (overuse)
  • Pain is not caused by an injury

Causes of Arm Pain

  • Muscle Overuse (Strained Muscles). Arm pains are often from hard muscle work or sports. Examples are too much throwing or swimming. They are most common in the shoulder. This type of pain can last from hours up to 7 days.
  • Muscle Cramps. Brief pains that last 1 to 15 minutes are often due to muscle cramps. These occur in the hand after too much writing or typing.
  • Viral Illness. Mild muscle aches in both arms also occur with many viral illnesses.
  • Septic Arthritis (Serious). This is a bacterial infection of a joint space. Main symptoms are fever and severe pain with movement of the joint. Range of motion is limited or absent (a "frozen joint").

Pain Scale

  • Mild: Your child feels pain and tells you about it. But, the pain does not keep your child from any normal activities. School, play and sleep are not changed.
  • Moderate: The pain keeps your child from doing some normal activities. It may wake him or her up from sleep.
  • Severe: The pain is very bad. It keeps your child from doing all normal activities.

Call 911 Now

  • Not moving or too weak to stand
  • You think your child has a life-threatening emergency

Call Doctor Now or Go to ER

  • Can't use arm or hand normally
  • Can't move the shoulder, elbow or wrist normally
  • Swollen joint
  • Muscles are weak (loss of strength)
  • Numbness (loss of feeling) present over 1 hour
  • Severe pain or cries when arm is touched or moved
  • Your child looks or acts very sick
  • You think your child needs to be seen, and the problem is urgent

Call Doctor Within 24 Hours

  • Fever is present
  • Bright red area on skin
  • You think your child needs to be seen, but the problem is not urgent

Call Doctor During Office Hours

  • Cause of arm pain is not clear
  • Arm pain lasts more than 7 days
  • Arm pains or muscle cramps are a frequent problem
  • You have other questions or concerns

Self Care at Home

  • Caused by overusing the muscles
  • Cause is clear and harmless. (Examples are a sliver that's removed or a recent shot)

Care Advice for Strained Arm Muscles

  1. What You Should Know About Mild Arm Pain:
    • Strained muscles are common after using them too much during sports.
    • An example is throwing a ball over and over again.
    • Weekend warriors who are out of shape get the most muscle pains.
    • Here is some care advice that should help.
  2. Pain Medicine:
    • To help with the pain, give an acetaminophen product (such as Tylenol).
    • Another choice is an ibuprofen product (such as Advil).
    • Use as needed.
  3. Cold Pack for Pain:
    • For pain or swelling, use a cold pack. You can also use ice wrapped in a wet cloth.
    • Put it on the sore muscles for 20 minutes.
    • Repeat 4 times on the first day, then as needed.
    • Caution: Avoid frostbite.
  4. Use Heat After 48 Hours:
    • If pain lasts over 2 days, put heat on the sore muscle.
    • Use a heat pack, heating pad or warm wet washcloth.
    • Do this for 10 minutes, then as needed.
    • Reason: Increase blood flow and improve healing.
    • Caution: Avoid burns.
  5. What to Expect:
    • A strained muscle hurts for 2 or 3 days.
    • The pain often peaks on day 2.
    • After severe overuse, the pain may last a week.
  6. Call Your Doctor If:
    • Fever or swollen joint occurs
    • Pain caused by work or sports lasts over 7 days
    • You think your child needs to be seen
    • Pain gets worse

Disclaimer

The information contained in these topics is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, it is provided for educational purposes only. You assume full responsibility for how you choose to use this information.

Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider before starting any new treatment or discontinuing an existing treatment. Talk with your healthcare provider about any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Nothing contained in these topics is intended to be used for medical diagnosis or treatment.

  • Not a Substitute - The information and materials in Pediatric HouseCalls Symptom Checker should not be used as a substitute for the care and knowledge that your physician can provide to you.
  • Supplement - The information and materials presented here in Pediatric HouseCalls Symptom Checker are meant to supplement the information that you obtain from your physician. If there is a disagreement between the information presented herein and what your physician has told you -- it is more likely that your physician is correct. He or she has the benefit of knowing your child's medical problems.
  • Limitations - You should recognize that the information and materials presented here in Pediatric HouseCalls Symptom Checker have the following limitations, in comparison to being examined by your own physician:
    • You can have a conversation with your child's doctor.
    • Your child's doctor can perform a physical examination and any necessary tests.
    • Your child could have an underlying medical problem that requires a physician to detect.
    • If your child is taking medications, they could influence how he experiences various symptoms.

If you think that your child is having a medical emergency, call 911 or the number for the local emergency ambulance service NOW!

And when in doubt, call your child's doctor NOW or go to the closest emergency department.

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