The armpit is the small area that is found right at the junction of the arm with the shoulder. When pain occurs in this area, it can be really intense. This is because the armpit is home to one of the most complex network of nerves, known as the brachial plexus. Also, there are many blood vessels (veins and arteries) that pass through the same area. This is a highly sensitive surface and the armpit pain can be more severe than you would have ever imagined.
The intensity of the armpit pain can range from mild to severe, depending on the causative factor. Most women, when suffering from armpit pain, they immediately think of breast nodules or, even worse, breast cancer. However, the diagnosis can be immediately excluded by performing a mammography. With armpit pain, it can happen that the source of pain is either visible (such as a lump) or not. When the pain does not come from a visible source, it is important to consider referred pain. This pain radiates into the armpit from another part of the body, sometimes coming from a distant injury site.
Whether the armpit pain is local or referred, it is important to choose the right treatment. The chosen treatment depends on the causative factor of the pain – injury, infection or inflammation – but also on how severe the pain actually is. Armpit pain is found in people of different ages and genders. The diagnosis is more easily made if the patient experiences other modifications, besides the armpit pain. One particular example could be given – angina patients. The most important symptom is the chest pain, the armpit pain coming as a secondary modification.
What are the Symptoms of Armpit Pain?
- Most obvious symptom
- Range from mild to severe (the patient is asked to appreciate its intensity on a scale from 1 to 10, 1 being the less severe and 10 the highest intensity)
- Pain can be local or referred
- Can be triggered by touch
- In case of infection (folliculitis), the armpit area might be red, inflamed and tender to the touch. As pus tends to form around the hair follicle, lumps can be palpated under the skin.
- If the armpit skin has been irritated for some reason, touching the area will cause discomfort. The irritated skin is also red and it might have a modified texture, easy to sense when touching.
- If the main cause of the armpit pain is related to the muscles, then the patient might also experience muscle weakness.
- Armpit pain can be caused by a problem in the shoulder joint. When this happens, the pain is accompanied by a loss in the range of mobility. The patient might also adopt a specific posture – it is common knowledge that he/she will adopt the posture in which there is very little or no pain.
- Movement can aggravate the armpit pain, this being a symptom of joint problems.
- In case of nerve entrapment, the armpit pain might be accompanied by a tingling or numbing sensation. This can extend throughout the entire superior limb, affecting even the fingers.
Causes of Armpit Pain
These are the most common causes that can lead to armpit pain:
Brachial plexus injury
- Occurs when the head is pulled from the shoulder, the latter being pressed in a downward direction.
- Contact sports/trauma/fall
- Reduced mobility in the affected arm + armpit pain.
- Bacterial – streptococcus
- Lump/cyst formation
- Pain is accompanied by warmth and tenderness.
- Painful lump under the skin
- Infection of the hair follicle
- May require surgery for drainage.
- Hodgkin’s lymphoma/breast cancer (metastases)
- Painful lump under the skin
- Known history of cancer.
Blocked cyst duct
- Lump under the skin
- Harmless condition.
- This can lead to armpit pain and also is a favoring factor of excessive sweating.
Excess breast tissue
- Common problem in overweight women
- Leads to armpit pain and circulatory problems.
- Chickenpox/Shingles/Infectious mononucleosis
- Painful lump under the skin.
Shoulder joint problem
- Frozen shoulder/shoulder fracture/arthritis
- Reduced mobility in the shoulder joint + armpit pain
- Tenderness to the touch.
- Reduced mobility is associated with sensitive modifications.
Other possible causes:
- Open fracture
- Chest angina
- Sports/overuse injury
- Trauma – cut/laceration.
The symptomatic treatment of armpit pain is represented by anti-inflammatory medication. This will contribute not only to the elimination of pain but it will also help with other symptoms, such as inflammation or tenderness. If there is an associated infection, caused by a bacterial agent, then the doctor will most likely recommend broad-spectrum antibiotics. It is important that the antibiotics are taken for the recommended period of time, otherwise the bacteria will develop resistance and the next time the treatment will no longer be effective. In case of fungal infection, topical creams are indicated to eliminate the fungal agent and cure the infection.
Brachial plexus injuries require initial contention of the arm, followed by a good program of physical therapy. It is important that the therapy program contributes to the reduction of the armpit pain and also guarantees an improvement in the arm mobility. The presence of a skin abscess might require the incision made at the site, followed by the drainage. Also, the doctor might decide to prescribe antibiotics in order to eliminate the infectious organism that caused the abscess in the first place.
Supportive care and morphine might be administered to patients suffering from terminal cancer, especially if there is a lot of intense armpit pain. Blocked cyst ducts can be drained through surgical methods and shoulder joint problems can be solved through anti-inflammatory medication and physical therapy. Nerve entrapment is solved with surgery, followed by a period of intense physical rehabilitation. Open fractures are operated, then immobilized and rehabilitated through physical therapy. Traumas are addressed by the surgeon and antibiotics are administered to prevent secondary infections.
In conclusion, by addressing the exact cause of the armpit pain with the right treatment, the pain and all of the associated symptoms will disappear.