Bicep Tears at the Elbow | Loyola Medicine

Bicep Tears at the Elbow

Overview and Facts about Bicep Tears at the Elbow

Bicep tears at the elbow are less common than a bicep tear at the shoulder. This injury is usually caused by a sudden injury and requires surgery to fully heal and return the arm to normal function. Tears may be partial (less common) or complete (more common, results in the entire muscle separating from the bone). 

Symptoms of Bicep Tears at the Elbow

Bicep tears are mainly caused by injury and overuse and have the following associated symptoms:

  • Sharp, sudden pain in the elbow
  • Swelling in front of the joint
  • Hearing a popping or snapping noise
  • Pain or tenderness
  • Weakness
  • Bruising that starts in upper arm and travels to the elbow
  • Cramping in the biceps muscle
  • Pain/difficulty turning the palm up and down
  • Bulge in the upper arm above the elbow with a dent close to the shoulder (“Popeye muscle”)

Causes and Risk Factors of Bicep Tears at the Elbow

Injury is the main cause of a bicep tear at the elbow. This injury usually occurs when the elbow is forced straight against resistance (i.e. when lifting a heavy object).

Risk factors include:

  • Gender: More men than women injure their bicep muscle 
  • Overhead sports, such as swimming, weightlifting or tennis
  • Corticosteroid use
  • Smoking: Nicotine affects nutrition in the bicep tendon 

Tests and Diagnosis of Bicep Tears at the Elbow

Your doctor will begin by reviewing your medical history and discussing your symptoms. He/she will then ask you to flex your bicep muscle to assess any pain and examine your elbow (a gap in the front of the elbow may indicate a bicep tear). Your doctor may ask you to rotate your forearm against resistance to test your supination strength. He/she may also order imaging tests, such as an MRI, ultrasound or X-ray, to new tears and/or determine if pain is due to another type of elbow injury. 

Treatment of Bicep Tears at the Elbow

Your doctor will first recommend non-surgical treatment options to heal your partial or complete bicep tear. Rest, physical therapy or application of cold packs help to relieve pain and swelling. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication, such as ibuprofen or aspirin, may also help reduce any pain from a bicep tear.

Your doctor may recommend surgery if pain or cramping is not relieved by non-surgical options, or if your profession (i.e., manual laborer or athlete) requires fast and complete recovery. Surgery to reattach the torn tendon to the bone involves a small incision and the application of sutures, suture anchors or other devices. Bicep tear surgery requires a period of flexibility and strengthening exercises to regain range of motion.