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What is Brachial Neuralgia?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Brachial neuralgia is a radiating pain in the shoulder and upper arm caused by damage to a nerve in the neck. When it occurs in the left arm, it may be mistaken as a heart attack symptom, causing great concern in the patient. There are treatment options available, and a patient may meet with physical therapists, orthopedic surgeons, and neurologists in the process of evaluating and treating the pain. It is important to be aware that some treatments may take time to work, and the process of finding a solution can sometimes be lengthy.

In patients with brachial neuralgia, the nerve may be pinched by one of the structures in the neck, or it could be damaged as a result of infection, inflammation, or progressive neurological disease. The pain may be sharp and stabbing and can come and go, depending on the cause. Many patients find it severe and intolerable, and usually seek treatment quickly with the goal of getting relief.

When a patient presents with brachial neuralgia, a medical evaluation will be conducted to find out what is going on. Medical imaging studies can be helpful, as can lab tests. This information will be used to explore possible treatments. These may include anti-inflammatory drugs, pain management medications, and physical manipulation like decompression and stretching to see if a pinched or trapped nerve can be freed. Electrical stimulation of the nerve to interrupt pain signals is sometimes an option. Surgery may also be considered.

This condition can be frustratingly elusive in some patients. When a nerve is pinched, the pressure may wax and wane, leading to situations where patients sometimes experience pain and sometimes feel fine. Measures like stretching and spinal adjustments performed by a chiropractor may resolve the pain, and in other cases, it may return. Adequate treatment should include pain management, and some patients may also benefit from counseling if they are experiencing depression or frustration as a result of their shoulder pain.

It is important to receive treatment for brachial neuralgia, as it can become more severe when it is not treated. There is a possibility it may be linked with another medical problem in need of evaluation and treatment, and catching this condition early may provide patients with more options for treatment and long term management. Chronic pain conditions can also have deleterious effects on mental health, and patients should be sure to report changes in their mental health to their doctors.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By lovemy3boys — On Apr 11, 2013

Thank you John1478. I have brachial neuralgia, sustained in a trampoline accident when I was 14. I am now 44. Sometimes the pain is so severe it makes me cry. I was feeling not too bad then, so decided to try your exercise suggestions! Ouch! Now all the fingers in my right hand are numb and the pain in the muscle at my elbow almost unbearable. Tomorrow I will be able to tell my physiotherapist which exercises I can do and those I can't.

By anon281740 — On Jul 25, 2012

Thank you for this article. It helps me to understand what is actually happening. I had my first episode in 2011. At the time I was 16, doing sports every day (also a life guard) and cared about health. I think being healthy will hopefully reduce your chances but taking better care of ourselves does not always work, and that is what the health system is for, times like this.

I had it occur again four months ago, this time it was little more difficult to get onto the appropriate medication as I had just moved states for university and did not have my parents or neurologist there. (Mine is not the nerve being pinched, and I have never been in an accident so it has been put down as a virus.)

Since the recent episode, I have been on 50mg of endep and 900mg of gabapentine daily and doing hydro therapy constantly. Unfortunately, I still did not have much movement in my left arm and have no choice but to stay on the pain meds. I just want people to be aware that there is support out there. Having to resign from my job and stop all of my sports, well, I know it can be difficult. It is not as bad for me as I am younger, having just turned 18 last week, but I hope we all have time to heal. I just was curious about the statistics. I know it is not common in younger people? Thank you for your information about this unfortunate thing.

By anon258999 — On Apr 04, 2012

Thank you for this post. I am 43 and was recently involved in a car accident. I believe that I clenched the steering wheel really hard and am right handed, by the way. I have this burning sensation in my right arm predominately and more mild in my left.

As a result of the accident, I had a neck sprain but have also had shooting pain in the muscles on the right side of my body. I am going through physical therapy but when I described the burning sensation to my doctors they felt it was unrelated to the accident. I am having problems with muscle spasms and pain in my back (upper). This article explains what I couldn't communicate to my doctors. Big dummies!

By john1478 — On Jun 29, 2011

@SuperJD - Thank you for your post. I think a lot of people need to realize that the best medical care is preventative medical care.

I too am a chiropractor, so I would like to add to this discussion. I tell my patients all the time that proper exercise, along with a healthy diet, can help to prevent and relieve neck and back injuries.

Push-ups, arm lifts, neck exercises, and shoulder shrugs all can help to strengthen your neck and back, as well as improve your posture. Activities such as swimming, rowing, and ball throwing are also ways to build and maintain upper body strength.

I hope this post encourages people to take care of themselves better. Do yourself, and our struggling health care system, a favor and stay healthy!

By SuperJD — On Jun 27, 2011

Thanks for writing this article. The information presented is quite accurate, so I think a lot of people can learn from it.

I am a chiropractor, so I see patients suffering from brachial neuralgia all the time. There are several breathing and stretching exercises that I tell my patients to do, all in the hopes of relieving their pain. However, I think the best way to treat brachial neuralgia is to prevent it all together.

I encourage my patients, and all the readers out there, to start eating foods that will help to build and maintain a strong nervous system. Daily vitamins are important to your nerves and bones, so I would encourage taking a daily vitamin supplement. Lots of green vegetables are also a way to get the vitamins and nutrients your body needs.

Eating better will not only make your nerves happier, but your whole body. So eat your fruits and vegetables, doctor's orders!

By Farah1 — On Jun 26, 2011

I can relate to this article. I am a 46 year old woman, and heart disease runs in my family. I do my best to eat right and exercise, but my cholesterol levels are still high.

So when one day I was feeling a sharp pain in my left shoulder and arm, I immediately thought that I was having a heart attack. I was in my home when the pain first appeared, so I grabbed my phone and called 911.

The paramedics assured me that I was not having a heart attack, so I immediately felt relieved. My pain was still persistent, so the took me to the hospital. The doctor ran some scans, and it turns out I had brachial neuralgia. My nerves were swollen from injuring myself during yoga.

I caught the pain early enough so that it did not do any serious damage. All in all, going through that heart attack scare was a good experience. I learned about a new medical condition, and I started to be more careful while doing my yoga poses!

By YogurtPark — On Jun 23, 2011

This article is great! It is very informative, and I am happy that I stumbled upon it. Keep the educational articles coming!

Not too long ago, my husband was having severe pain in his neck. He said that one minute he would feel fine, and then the next minute the pain would be so bad he would scream in agony. This went on for a few days. He is a tough guy, so I knew that if the pain he was feeling was intense enough to make him scream, then something serious was happening in his body.

We made an appointment with our doctor, and he ran some tests on my husband. Sure enough, a nerve in his neck was being pinched. One of his lymph nodes had a tumor on it and it was laying against a nerve.

The doctor was able to remove the tumor, which turned out to be benign, thank God.

Please excuse my story telling. But I said all that to emphasis the importance of seeing a doctor as soon as you know something is not right with your body. It can help save your life.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

Learn more
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