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Pain generally always indicates that something is wrong in the body. In the armpit area, for example, they can be signs of overloading the muscle and joint structures located there. However, more serious causes of pain such as lymph node or breast cancer can also be the trigger. If symptoms persist, it is therefore important to have the pain symptoms medically clarified in order to be able to counter serious health problems in good time with suitable countermeasures.
The armpit (axilla) is colloquially referred to that indentation in the upper body that is located in the cavity between the chest, shoulder and upper arm. Their shape is largely determined by the inner surface of the shoulder joints (articulatio humeri), whereby the shape is more precisely defined by various muscle components. These include:
- Large pectoralis major muscle,
- Small pectoralis muscle (pectoralis minor),
- Subscapularis muscle,
- Large back muscle (latissimus dorsi muscle),
- Large round muscle (Musculus teres major),
- Sawtooth muscle (serratus anterior),
- Ravenbill upper arm muscle (Musculus coracobrachialis),
- Arm flexors / biceps (Biceps brachii muscle).
In addition, there are numerous anatomical structures with functional tasks within the armpit. For example, the armpit is home to a variety of human sweat glands (Glandulae sudorigerae apocrinae). These are not only necessary for sweating and thus regulating body temperature.
At the same time, sexual messengers, better known as pheromones, are also secreted via the glands. The armpit lymph nodes (Nodi lymphatici axillares) are also located in the armpit. They are responsible for cleaning the armpit lymph, which flows through the tissue and has a decisive influence on the nutrient exchange with the bloodstream, but also on the function of the immune system.
Numerous blood vessels and nerve pathways also belong to the armpit. The axillary vein (axillary vein) and its counterpart, the axillary artery (axillary artery) and its numerous secondary branches, should be mentioned here in particular. It provides the blood supply to the arms, which illustrates the important tasks that the armpit vessels have to perform.
The arm plexus (brachial plexus) in the area of the armpit, a nerve network from which the nerves of the arms, shoulder and chest emerge, shows how much the armpit acts as a node for important structural processes in the upper body tissue. The presence of complex nerve structures also explains why the armpits emit pain stimuli relatively quickly, even with minor inconsistencies.
The source of pain does not necessarily have to be localized in the armpit itself, but may also be located in neighboring regions of the body, from where the pain radiates through the arm braid to the armpit.
Development of pain in the armpit
Because the armpit consists of so many different structures and types of tissue, the causes of pain in the armpit area can also be very diverse and both harmless and dangerous in nature. Muscle pain is most common here, caused by over or underuse of the armpit muscles during training. For this reason, armpit pain is not uncommon in sports medicine.
However, the anatomical accumulation of lymph nodes and lymph vessels makes the area of the armpit predestined for pain caused by swelling of the lymph nodes. Such swellings can occur in the context of numerous diseases and often indicate a health complaint relating to the immune system or cell tissue. Lymph node cancer is particularly feared in this context. However, less dangerous diseases such as inflammation of the lymphatic vessels are also conceivable triggers.
Although very questionable course of the disease can also be considered for aching armpits, in most cases, rather harmless backgrounds for the pain can be identified.
Even after mere cosmetic interventions such as the removal of armpit hair by a conventional shave, improper use can lead to local irritation, which leads to burning pain. Such a scenario is all the more likely if the shaved armpits come into contact with aggressive substances such as perfumed deodorants too soon. In addition, the combination of local irritation, regrowing hair and penetrating bacteria can lead to small areas of inflammation. In most cases, these are harmless in nature and usually resolve in a few days without much effort. Until then, however, a slight pain can persist.
Useful information: In some cases, mistakes in armpit shaving, but also improper body hygiene or friction in the armpit area cause annoying pimples. They can also lead to pain if there is further pressure or movement stimulus.
Another, rather harmless cause of armpit pain is wearing too tight clothes. Women in particular have to deal with this problem relatively often if they choose a bra that is too tight and causes pain on the shoulder due to the tight fit of the bra or in the armpit due to pressing bra straps. The same also applies to corsages that are too tightly laced.
Painful armpits due to incorrect loading
The armpits are also very susceptible to pain because there are numerous structures in this area that are sensitive to overloading and incorrect loading. Especially in sports, an incorrect strain on muscles and shoulder joints can easily lead to aching armpits. Classic complaints are caused by sore muscles, muscle tension, dislocations of the shoulder joint, but also by tangible sports injuries, such as torn muscle fibers.
The cause of such pain is often an inadequate build-up of muscles in combination with incorrectly or too intensely executed movement sequences in training. A weakened rotator cuff in this regard can always be identified as the cause of armpit pain due to sports overload. Said muscle-tendon plate is largely formed by muscle sections, which are located in the area of the armpit and from there extend to the shoulder or in the upper arms. As a result, there are weaknesses in the rotator cuff, especially in arm and shoulder-heavy sports such as
- Weight training,
- To ski
- and swim
painful problems. There are also some sports that increase the risk of injury and thus pain in the armpit due to their special focus on shoulder and arm movements. In addition to shoulder and arm-heavy weight training (for example weight lifting), this should primarily include martial arts, in which blows to the arms and chest or considerable pressure loads on these areas of the body are common. This applies, for example, to boxing, kickboxing or ringing.
In everyday life, however, joint and muscle-related armpit pain is more a result of poor posture. There is usually a lack of exercise behind the symptoms, which in many cases results in shortened muscles. If the shortened, sometimes completely atrophied muscles are particularly challenged, muscle pain can hardly be ruled out. Typical scenarios that cause armpit pain in this way are, for example, a monotonous arm and shoulder position when working in front of the PC or playing computer and console games. In this context, the pain usually increases with movement or special exertion, whereas it often subsides quickly when at rest.
Important: The fact that underused muscles like to quickly reset their pain symptoms at rest does not mean that they should be challenged less. On the contrary, a shortened musculature must be stretched and strengthened in a targeted manner in order to avoid repeated pain during exercise in the future.
Occasionally there is also a tangible disease behind armpit pain. Damage to elements in the musculoskeletal system that are located in this area can be identified as a possible source of pain. In this context, the pain can, for example, indicate the following diseases:
- Osteoarthritis of the shoulder:
As a result of degenerative wear and tear, armpit pain is not uncommon. Under certain circumstances, the arthrotic processes here are not limited to the shoulder joint, but also affect other joint sections. In such a case, the pain mainly occurs when the affected joint moves or is stressed.
- Shoulder arthritis:
Degenerative processes in joints can sometimes be accompanied by inflammation of the joint parts. In such a case, the pain is particularly pronounced and, in addition to stress and movement pain, can also occur at rest.
- Vertebral blockages:
As a result of injuries or permanent incorrect loading (e.g. due to being overweight), the small articular surfaces between the vertebral bodies and ribs may wedge or the intervertebral discs may prolapse in the area of the cervical and thoracic spine. It is not unusual for the pain to radiate to the armpits as a result.
- Torn muscle or muscle fiber:
Due to injuries, armpit pain is most likely to result from the effects of violence on the armpit, upper arm and shoulder area, which lead to pronounced muscle tears or complete tendon ruptures of bony structures. The "torn shoulder" is a common term here. Although the symptoms usually only cause minor fiber tears on the muscles, severe accident scenarios or physical disputes can also result in very intense muscle damage, which greatly increases the pain potential.
- Pinching the brachial plexus:
Also mostly caused by accidents or falls is a pinching of the nerve network in the armpit area. This can lead not only to sensory sensations and pain in the armpit, but also to motor failures and paralysis in the area of the fingers. Because the nerves that extend in the armpit area continue mainly in the arm extremities and the hands, where they shape the motor skills. If the pinching is not corrected sufficiently, permanent damage can also occur, which can then cause irreversible nerve disorders with recurring pain symptoms.
Inflammation and infection
In the context of infectious diseases, armpit pain mainly indicates the activity of the immune system. In the course of immunological defense reactions there is a growth in the size of the axillary lymph nodes, which try to stop the pathogens by the massive production of defense cells. This process can arise from local inflammation on the one hand, but also in the case of cross-organ infections. Examples of corresponding local inflammation and infectious agents that painfully call on the armpit lymph nodes would be here:
- Inflammation of the sweat or sebum glands (acne inversa),
- Inflammation in the context of infected venous access,
- Infectious cuts in the upper extremities,
- Inflammation of the mammary glands (mastitis),
- HI viruses (HIV infection),
- Epstein-Baar viruses (Pfeiffer’s glandular fever),
- Mycobacteria (tuberculosis),
- Toxoplasma (toxoplasmosis).
Armpit pain in vascular diseases
Some vascular diseases are also able to provoke aching armpits. Thromboses are not nearly as common in the upper extremities as in the legs, but they can still occur there and then manifest themselves, among other things, in pain in the armpit as well as redness, swelling and impaired function of the arm in question.
However, the clinical picture of thrombophlebitis occurs far more frequently in connection with intravenous infusion therapy. Due to non-compliance with hygienic guidelines, the superficial vein in which the indwelling cannula was located ignites. If the local inflammation is not recognized and treated in good time, the invading pathogens can rise along the vein in the direction of the armpit and cause further inflammatory reactions, accompanied by pain, swelling and redness. A hygienic way of working for medically necessary interventions on the veins is therefore essential.
Armpit pain as an indication of tissue abnormalities
Armpit pain can also occur in the complete absence of potential pathogens and, in conjunction with clearly palpable lymph node swellings, unclear weight loss and a drop in performance, provide a worrying indication of malignant diseases.
If cancer is in progress, it can happen that degenerate cancer cells settle in the lymphatic vessels. Corresponding lymph nodes now exist in every region of the body, but in places where the body has indentations such as the armpit, such cell deposits tend to build up.
To make matters worse, there is the fact that there are so-called sentinel lymph nodes, which are the first filter station to examine the flowing tissue water with regard to pathogens and degenerated cells. If they find something, they alert the body's immune system and swell. A swollen sentinel lymph node in this way generally does not cause direct pain, but due to its size, it can put pressure on the surrounding neighboring tissue and thereby become painful.
A typical cancer that causes swollen armpit lymph nodes in this way and in the later course also pain caused by irritation is breast cancer. Women in particular are often affected by this near-armpit cancer and become clairaudient as soon as nodules, abnormal sensations and armpit pain develop due to cancer cell deposits. Lymph gland cancer can also show up in the armpit area.
- Degeneration of other organs or organ systems with metastasis in surrounding lymph nodes:
In this type of cancer, the primary tumor is to be found in another organ or organ system. The lymph node swelling is due to remote colonization with degenerate cells from other organs. Here, the earlier such a finding is recognized, the better the forecast to be expected. Lymph node swellings in the armpit area are most often the following types of cancer:
- Breast cancer (breast cancer),
- Thyroid cancer (goiter maligna),
- Blood cancer (leukemia),
- Gastric cancer (gastric cancer),
- Lung cancer (bronchial carcinoma).
- Degeneration of the lymphatic system:
The cells of the lymphatic system itself can also degenerate. Depending on the cell type, a distinction is made between:
- Hodgkin's disease,
- Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Both forms begin with an unspecific and painless swelling of lymph nodes, especially in the area of the neck or armpit. Hodgkin's disease can usually be treated well with early detection and shows a very good prognosis with a ten-year survival rate of almost 90 percent. Whereas non-Hodgkin's lymphoma has a very early and high spread rate and therefore does not have such a good prognosis.
Now, in addition to cancer, there are some other, more benign tissue abnormalities that can also lead to armpit pain. There is often a collection of secretions in the tissue cavities of the armpit, such as:
- or abscesses
he follows. Again, an unusual pressure is exerted on the armpit tissue, which finally causes the pain through nerve stimuli. Such complaints are usually not dangerous. However, appropriate measures should still be taken to drain the secretions and thus bring the affected tissue back to a normal state.
Depending on the cause, the pain in the armpit can be perceived as oppressive, dull, stinging or burning. They can occur from permanent, but only with certain movements. If the pain is caused by swollen lymph nodes, for example, painful perceptions sometimes only occur when the pressure increases as the arm is pulled towards the trunk.
If local inflammation is the cause, the pain is usually accompanied by localized swelling, overheating and redness.
However, functional restrictions, feelings of numbness and discomfort (especially in the area of the fingers) are also possible. If there is a cross-organ infection, numerous non-specific accompanying symptoms can also occur. These include:
- Fever and fatigue.
- Nausea and vomiting,
- Flu-like symptoms,
- Throat problems and swallowing disorders.
The causes of aching armpits can sometimes only be determined by a thorough physical examination. Although patients can determine certain points of reference such as swollen lymph nodes or pimples themselves by private tactile examination, medical clarification is still urgently required.
The doctor will first take a careful medical history to uncover possible accident and illness scenarios based on patient information on existing accompanying symptoms, everyday habits or previous illnesses. Afterwards, depending on the suspicion, a physical examination is carried out. For example, X-rays or ultrasound examinations are conceivable. Movement tests to check muscle and joint health are also an option. If cancer is suspected, blood and lymphatic water tests are also possible.
Depending on the respective cause, armpit pain can be treated either with simple home remedies and medicinal measures (e.g. painful pimples) or with medicinal or surgical treatment steps. Which procedure is suitable must be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Overall, the following approaches are possible:
If the armpit area has been painfully affected by overloading or injuries, the body section must of course first be spared. Avoid lifting heavy loads or being overwhelmed by disproportionate efforts or overtraining. Depending on the severity of the lesion, sports breaks of one to several weeks are conceivable. This applies in particular to very strong muscle and joint injuries.
In addition to being gentle, cooling can also help relieve armpit pain. A cold envelope, curd wrap or cool packs offer good opportunities for this. However, it is important that patients pay attention to their personal well-being, because not everyone is equally comfortable with such cold treatment.
The only way to combat pain from weakened muscle segments, for example in the course of poor posture, lack of exercise or too demanding training sessions, is to strengthen the muscles sustainably.
Stretching exercises are just as important here as strength training, so that the tissue becomes more flexible and resilient at the same time. In addition to targeted muscle building, such as push-ups, dumbbell training or arm-heavy sports such as swimming, exercise measures such as yoga are therefore a good way to prevent armpit pain from overexertion and improper exercise.
In everyday life, it is also particularly recommended for people who have to sit a lot for work-related reasons to take regular breaks. Here, too, the short break can be used to perform stretching and movement exercises for the arms.
Anyone who has undertaken in sports training should also attach importance to sufficient warm-up training to prepare their muscles well. The subsequent training should then be individually adapted to the current limits of the body's resilience.
Not only abscesses, boils and pimples can sometimes be treated very reliably with medicinal herbs. Muscle and joint complaints also respond well to the treatment methods that Mother Nature provides. How to help:
- Johannis herbs,
- and marigold
for example, very good for existing muscle strains, muscle tension and muscle injuries. They can be used for this purpose, for example in the form of a tincture, ointment or with herb wraps for the armpit. A similar procedure can be used for joint complaints, with the following herbs being recommended in addition to comfrey:
- Field horsetail,
- Hay flower,
- Devil's claw,
A special tip for both muscle and joint problems is the so-called Tiger Balm. A balm made from extremely spicy extracts of traditional Chinese medicine herbs. It contains menthol, for example. Camphor and cajeput oil, which generally have an extraordinary effect on all muscle and joint-related pain complaints.
By the way: Field horsetail, chamomile and marigold are also good choices for cysts and pimples.
The most important medicines for armpit pain include pain relievers such as diclofenac, ibuprofen or paracetamol. However, these should only be used for harmless causes if it is really necessary. If there are serious underlying diseases, the use of other drugs (for example cytostatics for cancer or vein medication for thrombosis complaints) is also conceivable.
Surgical measures are particularly necessary for tumor removal. However, larger cysts and edema may also need to be drained through surgical drainage. The treating doctor decides when such steps are appropriate.
Possible health problems with armpit pain:
- Muscle tears,
- Muscle fiber tears,
- pinched muscles,
- Weaknesses on the rotator cuff,
- Osteoarthritis of the shoulder,
- Shoulder arthritis,
- Vertebral blockages,
- Inflammation of sweat or sebum,
- Wound infections,
- Inflammation of the mammary glands,
- HIV infection,
- Pfeiffer’s glandular fever,
- Breast cancer,
- Lymph gland cancer,
- Hodgkin's disease,
- Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma,
- Stomach cancer and lung cancer.
Author and source information
This text corresponds to the requirements of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.
- Carol S. Portlock: Hodgkin Lymphoma, MSD Manual, (accessed August 7, 2019), MSD
- Mary Ann Kosir: Breast Cancer, MSD Manual, (accessed 08/07/2019), MSD
- Jens Schönbeck: Shoulder Physiotherapy - Conservative and Postoperative Rehabilitation, Urban & Fischer Verlag, Elsevier GmbH, 2012
- Karl Zilles, Bernhard Tillmann: Anatomy, Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg, 1st edition, 2010