Biceps Tendon Tear

What is a biceps tendon tear?

The biceps is the muscle in the front of the upper arm. You use it when you rotate your forearm and bend your elbow. Biceps tendons attach the biceps muscle to bones in the shoulder and the elbow. The tendons that connect the biceps muscle to the shoulder joint are called the proximal biceps tendons. The tendon that attaches the biceps muscle to the forearm bones is called the distal biceps tendon. A biceps tear can occur in either location.

Partial biceps tears do not completely sever the tendon. Complete tears (also called biceps rupture) mean the tendon has torn away from the bone.

How does a biceps tear occur?

Injury and overuse are the most common causes of a biceps tear. Risk increases with age, excessive shoulder use, overtraining, heavy lifting, falling onto an outstretched arm and smoking.

What are the symptoms of a biceps tear?

Common symptoms of a biceps tear include:

  • Sudden, severe pain at the shoulder or the elbow
  • An audible pop or snap when the injury occurs
  • Bruising on the upper arm
  • Tenderness in the shoulder or elbow
  • Weakness in the shoulder or elbow
  • Difficulty rotating the arm from a palm down to a palm up position
  • A bulge in the upper arm above the elbow (known as “Popeye muscle”)

How is a biceps tear diagnosed?

In addition to a physical exam and patient history, your doctor can use specific tests, including X-ray and MRI, to diagnose a biceps tear and rule out other problems.

What is the treatment?

Many biceps tears do not require surgery. For many people with partial tears, pain resolves over time. Nonsurgical treatment, including ice, rest and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications may help relieve pain and swelling. Physical therapy can help restore strength.

If these conservative methods fail to alleviate symptoms, or if the biceps tear is complete, surgery may be necessary. In addition, athletes, manual laborers and others who want to regain full arm strength may opt for surgery.

Surgical treatment depends on the nature and extent of the damage. Partial tears may only require a simple arthroscopic shaving (called a debridement) of the torn fibers. If the tear is more severe, surgery is performed to re-anchor the torn tendon back to the bone.