Forearm pain can significantly interfere with your daily life, especially if it affects your dominant arm. Your forearm contains two bones and several nerves, muscles, tendons and blood vessels. Injuries or conditions that affect any of these structures can cause pain between your wrist and elbow.
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Forearm muscles and tendons primarily power bending and extending movements of the wrist and fingers as well as forearm rotation. A forearm strain involves sudden stretching or tearing of muscle or tendon fibers, or both. In addition to pain and tenderness, symptoms may include swelling, muscle spasms or cramps, and difficulty moving the forearm, wrist or fingers in ways that involve the injured muscle and/or tendon.
Whereas a strain injury develops acutely, tendinosis refers to tendon damage caused by chronic overuse. Two types of tendinosis cause forearm pain.
Lateral epicondylitis -- commonly known as tennis elbow -- causes pain and/or burning along the outer side of the elbow and extending into the forearm. The pain is often aggravated by grasping and lifting objects, and grip strength may be reduced. Lateral epicondylitis is common among people who play racket sports and those whose profession involves repetitive hand movements such as painters, musicians and carpenters.
Medial epicondylitis -- commonly known as golfer's or pitcher's elbow -- causes pain and/or burning along the inner side of the elbow and forearm. The condition develops with repetitive movements that involve forcefully bending the hand down, such as when throwing a ball, javelin or shot. Bellhops who carry heavy suitcases, people who often chop wood and those who regularly use hand tools can also develop this condition.
Broken forearm bones are among the most common fractures in both children and adults. Many forearm fractures occur close to the wrist, usually due to falling on an outstretched arm. Pain typically occurs immediately followed by swelling and possibly bruising. The forearm appears deformed if the broken bones are displaced. With hairline fractures, however, there is no deformity, which might lead to a delay in diagnosis.
Nerves supply sensation and power the forearm muscles. A nerve injury may occur with trauma but more commonly develops due to prolonged or frequent compression. Three types of nerve compression, or entrapment, can lead to forearm pain.
Cubital Tunnel Syndrome
Cubital tunnel syndrome involves compression of the ulnar nerve as it crosses near the bony bump on the inner aspect of the elbow, commonly called the funny bone. Frequently leaning on your elbows or keeping your elbows bent for prolonged periods can stretch and irritate the nerve causing elbow pain that often radiates down the inner forearm. The pain is frequently accompanied by tingling and/or numbness of the ring and little fingers.
Pronator syndrome is a rare condition that involves compression of the median nerve near the bend of the elbow. Symptoms include pain below the elbow crease, and tingling and/or numbness of the thumb and index and middle fingers. Twisting motions of the forearm typically aggravate the pain.
Anterior Interosseous Nerve Syndrome
Anterior interosseous nerve syndrome is another rare condition that involves compression of the named nerve. Pain occurs below the elbow crease and associated muscle weakness can lead to difficulty writing and grasping small objects between the thumb and index finger. Numbness and tingling are notably absent with this condition.
Although deep vein blood clots more commonly affect the legs, they can also occur in the arms. A clot in one of the deep veins near the elbow characteristically causes forearm and hand pain, marked swelling, red or bluish skin discoloration and possibly numbness or tingling.
A deep infection of the skin or soft tissues of the forearm can provoke moderate to severe pain, swelling, redness and warmth of the skin, and fever and chills. A bone infection, or osteomyelitis, involving one of the forearm bones can cause similar symptoms and severe tenderness over the infected area.
Many of the myraid causes of forearm pain have been discussed but other possibilities remain. For example, a noncancerous or cancerous tumor arising in the bones or soft tissues of the forearm can potentially cause pain in this area. Compression of the nerve root that exits the spinal cord at the junction of the neck and thoracic spine can also potentially cause pain on the inner aspect of the forearm, although a pinched nerve at this location is rare. Complex regional pain syndrome is another rare condition that might cause forearm pain.
Next Steps, Warnings and Precautions
See your doctor as soon as possible if you experience unexplained, persistent pain in your forearm. Seek immediate medical care if you've suffered a traumatic injury to your arm or if you experience any warning signs or symptoms, including:
- Severe or intensifying pain
- Severe swelling or bruising
- Red, bluish or purple discoloration of the forearm skin
- Spreading redness around an area of infection
- Fever or chills
- Loss of feeling in your arm or hand
Reviewed and revised by: Tina M. St. John, M.D.
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