Objectives The epidemiology of distal arm pain and back pain are similar. However, management differs considerably: for back pain, rest is discouraged, whereas patients with distal arm pain are commonly advised to rest and referred to physiotherapy. We hypothesised that remaining active would reduce long-term disability and that fast-track physiotherapy would be superior to physiotherapy after time on a waiting list. Methods Adults referred to community-based physiotherapy with distal arm pain were randomised to: advice to remain active while awaiting physiotherapy (typically delivered after 6-8 weeks); advice to rest while awaiting physiotherapy, or immediate treatment. Intention-to-treat analysis determined whether the probability of recovery at 26 weeks was greater among the active advice group, compared with those advised to rest and/or among those receiving immediate versus usually timed physiotherapy. Results 538 of 1663 patients invited between February 2012 and February 2014 were randomised (active=178; rest=182; immediate physiotherapy=178). 81% provided primary outcome data, and complete recovery was reported by 60 (44%), 46 (32%) and 53 (35%). Those advised to rest experienced a lower probability of recovery (OR: 0.54; 95% CI 0.32 to 0.90) versus advice to remain active. However, there was no benefit of immediate physiotherapy (0.64; 95% CI 0.39 to 1.07). Conclusions Among patients awaiting physiotherapy for distal arm pain, advice to remain active results in better 26-week functional outcome, compared with advice to rest. Also, immediate physiotherapy confers no additional benefit in terms of disability, compared with physiotherapy delivered after 6-8 weeks waiting time. These findings question current guidance for the management of distal arm pain.