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A Physical Therapist’s Tips For Solving Arm Pain

Upper body pain isn't always top of mind for runners—but having numb or tingling arms can be distracting when it starts happening mid-run.

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Arm Probs

Runners tend not to think much about their arms when it comes to injury prevention, but your upper body plays a big role in propelling your body forward. One symptom that can occur when your posture is compromised is numbness and achiness in your arms.

“Numbness or tingling is usually a sign of nerve or blood flow entrapment somewhere from the neck down to the hands,” says Wendy Winn, a New York City–based physical therapist who specializes in treating runners. “Often it comes down to postural dominance in the front of the body when a runner is using her anterior chest and arms to propel herself instead of getting a smooth rotation through the core.” Another common scenario she sees among runners is breathing with only the upper ribs, which tightens the scalene muscles in the front of the neck.

In rare cases, numbness or tingling can be an indication of a neurological illness. Another scenario is a lymphatic drainage problem, which is common among women who’ve had their lymph nodes surgically removed.

Here, Winn shares advice for keeping your upper body balanced and addressing arm numbness if it has already started.

Posture And Breathing Check-in

Runners who have tight chest muscles and rounded shoulders are more likely to experience blood flow entrapment, Winn says. Because many of us spend so much time deskbound and in slumped-forward positions in our daily lives, balancing out the muscles of the upper body should be a priority for any runner. Winn recommends stretching the pectoral muscles and strengthening the rhomboids and middle trapezius muscles.

When it comes to breathing, runners should focus on using their diaphragm instead of their upper chest, Winn says. To check how you typically breathe, place your hands on your lower ribs and take a deep inhale. You should feel your ribs expand in all directions while your shoulders stay relaxed. If instead your shoulders rise, you’re likely overusing your neck muscles when you run. Exercises that improve rib mobility and mobility in the thoracic spine can help you retrain your breathing pattern.

When To See A Pro

Significant changes in your running regimen, such as starting speedwork or increasing mileage, may contribute to changes in your breathing and therefore lead to arm numbness or pain on a run. But if you address these factors and your symptoms recur, it’s best to see a professional such as a sports medicine physician or physical therapist to diagnose and treat the problem.

“The longer this goes on, the longer it will take to resolve,” says Winn, who notes that runners typically are able to continue running while receiving treatment, as long as they stay below the threshold level of their symptoms. “The goal is that, with strengthening and postural reeducation, you are able to make a change that can be translated into your running.”

Smart Stretching

If you’re experiencing numbness or pain in your arms when you run, tightness in the chest and anterior neck muscles could be contributing factors. Winn recommends stretching these muscles to help alleviate symptoms.

Scalene Stretch

Use your right hand to grasp your left wrist and gently pull it downward. Then bend your neck to the right and slightly forward, pointing your nose toward your right armpit. Hold for at least 30 seconds. Then repeat on the other side.

Doorway Pec Stretch

Stand in a doorway and place one hand and forearm on the doorframe with your elbow bent at 90 degrees or slightly more. Gently press into the doorframe as you turn away from it until you feel a stretch at the front of your chest. Hold for at least 30 seconds. Then repeat on the other side.