What Causes a Pain in Left Arm and Chest?

A pain in chest and left arm can send you to the emergency room pretty fast! It's frightening and often leads people to think they are having a heart attack. Actually, most reasons for chest pain are not serious. However, a first occurrence needs to be medically evaluated just to make sure. When you have chest pain that goes down your left arm or up into your jaw, it may be signaling a heart attack. It depends on the age of the patient and medical history, along with any other symptoms you are having to actually know if chest pain is serious or not. This is why medical attention needs to be sought.

Causes of Pain in Left Arm and Chest

There are a few different causes of chest pain. Some can be serious, but some may not be. This is why it is important to be evaluated by a doctor. Some of the causes include: 

1. Musculoskeletal Pain

Chest pain is most often musculoskeletal in nature. This happens when you pull a muscle or the cartilage in your ribs develops a type of inflammation known as costochondritis. If you do strain muscles in your chest, it can radiate into the arms or your neck and this can be mistaken for heart related chest pain.

This type of chest pain occurs suddenly and continues as you use your muscles. You will most likely also feel soreness in your chest wall when you push on the area. If this is the first occurrence, have it checked out.

Most often the treatment will be:

  • Ice
  • Anti-inflammatories
  • Rest

2. Angina

You can also get chest pain due to narrowing of your arteries. This isn't quite a heart attack yet, but a sign that it could happen. The blood flow to your heart is lower than it should be and not enough oxygen is getting to your heart. It may also be a reaction to exercise in some people.

When you have "classic angina" you will notice pain in your chest that feels like a "crushing" sensation. It can radiate down your left arm or even up into your jaw area. When you have angina, it is worse with movement or exercise and gets better with rest.

Angina may occur along with passing out, feeling short of breath, nausea, or vomiting. It is more common in men over the age of 50. The risk factors include smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and coronary artery disease. Diabetes is another risk factor, especially if you have uncontrolled blood sugar. Any angina attack that is undiagnosed and treated should be considered a medical emergency.


Get to your nearest emergency room if you are undiagnosed. Once you receive a diagnosis the treatments include:

  • Weight loss
  • Healthy lifestyle
  • Nitroglycerin to open up blood vessels and allow more blood flow to the heart
  • The doctor may also put you on a baby aspirin every day to keep your blood thin.

3. Heart Attack

A heart attack happens when all the blood supply is cut off to the entire heart, or even a small portion of your heart. This is usually caused by long standing angina and blockage progresses from the point of minor blockage to near or total blockage.

When this happens you may notice a "crushing" chest pain that is unrelieved by rest. Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath, dizziness or loss of consciousness, cold sweats, and radiating pain.


If you experience pain in left arm and chest with the symptoms mentioned above, call 9-1-1 right away and do not attempt to drive yourself to the emergency room. Doctors will run an electrocardiogram and lab tests to check for certain proteins that occur with death of heart muscle. You will most likely need to take prescription blood thinners and/or blood pressure medications from now on.

You will be admitted to the hospital for a few days. Severe Myocardial Infarction may even require open heart surgery known as Coronary Artery Bypass Grafting (CABG). You will also have to follow a healthy diet, lifestyle changes, and take any prescribed medications.


Chest pain due to Gastroesophageal reflux disease may closely resemble a heart attack. It often feels just like angina because of the location of your upper stomach and esophagus. It is hard to tell if you have GERD because the pain occurs behind your sternum, but does not usually spread anywhere else.

The pain of GERD is caused by your esophagus going into spasms. This is caused by the acid in your stomach slipping up into your esophagus. The pain is more sharp and stabbing and gets worse when you cough or breathe. It is also relieved by sitting up, rather than lying down.

Other symptoms of GERD include sour taste or burning in mouth, burping, burning in the stomach area, and trouble swallowing food or liquids.


The treatment for GERD usually includes:

  • Acid blocking medications 
  • Cigarettes avoidance
  • Alcohol
  • Sleeping in an elevated position and avoiding laying down right after eating
  • Avoiding greasy foods

5. Pleuritic Chest Pain

Chest pain can be related to inflammation in the lungs. Pleurisy can be caused by a virus, blood clots in the lungs, lupus, cancer, and lung diseases. This type of chest pain feels like a sharp stabbing pain when you cough or breathe. If the onset is sudden with shortness of breath, it could be a blood clot and a medical emergency. 


Treatment for pleuritic chest pain largely depends on the cause. 

  • For respiratory illness, you may be put on breathing treatments and encouraged not to smoke.
  • Lupus requires medications to suppress the immune system reaction.
  • For blood clots in your lungs, you will need emergency medical attention. They usually give you blood thinners, oxygen, and monitor your condition in the hospital.

Never try to diagnose or "wait out" pain in left arm and chest at home. If the pain is cardiac in nature, it can be fatal if left untreated!

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