Patients are often surprised when they find out that a symptom they’re having in one body part really has nothing to do with that body part. The arm is a good example of this. If your arm sometimes feels tight accompanied by random jumping, or pulsations, in the muscle, this arm throbbing may actually have nothing to do with your arm. In fact, it’s more likely that your arm throbbing is due to a nerve issue in your neck. In addition, you might not have any neck symptoms at all. How is this possible?
First, you need to understand that the nerves that supply the arm muscles branch off of the cervical spine in the neck. Let’s review this further.
Irritated Neck Nerves Can Cause Arm Throbbing
In many patients, irritated neck nerves don’t present as a symptom in the neck. In fact, sometimes the only symptoms of irritated nerves in the neck occur in the arm muscles, as either tightness, throbbing, or both. While the arm throbbing might be frustrating as it’s happening, you might not think a whole lot about it, especially if it only happens on occasion. However ignoring it is not a good idea since it is often a warning signal of a bigger problem in the neck.
These body connections occur all the way back to when we were a fetus, as the neck, shoulder, and arm all grow out of each other along with the wiring from the neck and into the arm. So when a neck nerve becomes irritated or injured, this can present as symptoms, such as throbbing, pain, tightness, and so on, anywhere along the nerve branch from the shoulder all the way to the fingers. Watch Dr. Centeno’s video below to learn more:
Irritated Neck Nerves Needs To Be Addressed
When left unaddressed, nerve issues in the neck can cause more serious arm problems, such as tears in tendons (e.g., tennis elbow, golfer’s elbow). Why the tendons? Muscles attach to and move the bones via the tendons. The nerves tell muscles to move, and when the nerves are irritated, slight malfunctions occur in the muscles, shutting down part of the muscle. This creates those tight trigger points, which pull on the tendon attachments between muscle and bone. This causes tendonitis, which can worsen over time and even lead to those tendon tears.
We’ve seen patients with chronic tennis elbow, for example who actually have a pinched nerve in the neck. While their symptoms present as a malfunction in the forearm muscles, the pinched nerve is at the C6 or 7 (cervical spine level 6 or 7) area of the neck as these are the nerves that supply the muscles in the forearm. These patients usually believe they have an elbow problem, when in reality, their elbow problem is just the warning flag, signaling for us to check the neck. This is something your interventional orthopedic physician is well-trained to recognize, and he or she will trace and treat the source of the arm throbbing, not just the arm itself. It wouldn’t do you much good for us to treat your tennis elbow, for example, if the source of the problem is an irritated nerve in your neck.
Address Arm Throbbing (and Neck Nerves) with Orthobiologics
Continuing to look at tennis elbow, typically a surgical treatment involves cutting the elbow tendon to release arm tightness. Knowing now that a nerve in the neck is often the culprit for arm issues, we probably don’t have to explain why this surgery would be a bad idea. It does explain, however, why many patients will still struggle with pain, tightness, or throbbing in the same location even after surgery: the surgery didn’t address the true cause of the tennis elbow.
Even if arm throbbing, pain, and so on really are due to tennis elbow or some other arm problem, research has shown surgery for tennis elbow is no better than no surgery. However, in our experience, orthobiologics, such as platelet-rich plasma (PRP) using the patient’s own platelets, have been effective for treating tennis elbow and other arm tendons for most patients. If neck nerves are the root problem, these can also be treated with injections of platelet lysate around the irritated nerves.
Arm throbbing – especially arm throbbing at night – might be irritating, but more often than not, it’s not a sign that you have an arm problem—in most cases, it’s telling you to have your neck checked. Most importantly, don’t let a surgeon cut into your arm without making sure you have a thorough exam of your neck first. Also make sure you see an interventional orthopedics physician to find out what your nonsurgical options are for your arm throbbing and your irritated neck nerve.