Why Does Chest Pain Radiate to the Left Arm?

Written by kendra dahlstrom
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Why Does Chest Pain Radiate to the Left Arm?
Electrocardiograms check for healthy heart activity. (heart monitor image by JASON WINTER from Fotolia.com)

One symptom of a heart attack includes left arm pain. Other types of chest pain, however, radiate down to the left arm as well. The nerves around the chest and heart act differently than anywhere else in the body. Although left arm pain doesn't always signify a heart condition, it isn't something one should ignore.

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Explanation

The nerves in and around the heart do not accurately pinpoint the exact location of pain, says Dr. Jeffrey P. Gress, a cardiologist. These nerves react differently than nerves in the extremities that hurt in the exact place of injury. When someone experiences chest pain and heart conditions such as a heart attack or angina, they often feel the pain in the arm or the jaw. This type of pain is called referred pain, when the neurotransmitters get confused and tell the brain a different part of the body hurts.

Causes

Many conditions cause arm pain associated with chest pain. Cardiac causes include angina and a heart attack. Also, sometimes viral infections cause inflammation in and around the heart, leading to pericarditis and myocarditis. Esophageal spasms sometimes cause chest pain as well as heartburn. Both of these conditions can also radiate pain down the left arm. Lung conditions such as a pulmonary embolism or asthma lead to chest pain too, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Warning

A heart attack represents one of the most dangerous causes of left arm pain. Some people mistake chest pain radiating to arm pain as heartburn. If left arm pain, however accompanies sweating, dizziness, nausea and shortness of breath, go to the hospital or call for emergency assistance right away, states the Mayo Clinic.

Tests

Since many conditions cause chest and left arm pain, doctors perform different tests to determine the culprit. One, the electrocardiogram, checks the heart and records all of its electrical activity. Blood tests show doctors enzyme levels. If certain enzymes register higher than normal, doctors can pinpoint the cause of the arm pain. Many times, the emergency room doctors perform chest X-rays on patients complaining of left arm pain. This gives them a picture of not only the heart, but also the blood vessels and lungs.

Treatment

Doctors treat heartburn with over-the-counter medication, or prescription drugs if the condition continues. Most of the time, people can avoid heartburn by staying away from highly fatty and acidic foods. People experiencing angina typically receive medication such as nitroglycerine to quickly and temporarily widen the blood vessels. People with left arm pain due to a heart attack receive an angioplasty or cardiac bypass surgery, according to the Mayo Clinic.

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