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What is a Biceps Tendon Rupture?

The biceps muscle is located in the front side of your upper arm and functions to help you bend and rotate your arm.

The biceps tendon is a tough band of connective fibrous tissue that attaches your biceps muscle to the bones in your shoulder on one side and the elbow on the other side.

Overuse and injury can cause fraying of the biceps tendon and eventual rupture.

A biceps tendon rupture can either be partial, where it does not completely tear or complete, where it splits in two and is torn away from the bone.

The biceps tendon can tear at the shoulder joint or elbow joint. Most biceps tendon ruptures occur at the shoulder, which is referred to as a proximal biceps tendon rupture. When it occurs at the elbow it is referred to as a distal biceps tendon rupture and is less common.

Causes of Biceps Tendon Rupture

Biceps tendon ruptures occur most commonly from an injury, such as a fall on an outstretched arm, or from overuse of the muscle, either due to age or from repetitive overhead movements such as with tennis and swimming.

Biceps tendon ruptures are common in people over 60 who have developed chronic micro-tears from degenerative change and overuse. These micro-tears weaken the tendon, making it more susceptible to rupture.

Other causes can include frequent lifting of heavy objects at work, weightlifting, long-term use of corticosteroid medications and smoking.

Symptoms of Biceps Tendon Rupture

The most common symptoms of a biceps tendon rupture include:

  • Sudden, sharp pain in the upper arm
  • An audible popping sound at the time of injury
  • Pain, tenderness, and weakness at the shoulder or elbow
  • Trouble turning the arm palm-up or palm-down
  • A bulge above the elbow (the “Popeye” sign)
  • Bruising to the upper arm

Diagnosis of Biceps Tendon Rupture

Your doctor diagnoses a biceps tendon rupture after observing your symptoms and taking a medical history. A physical exam is performed where your arm may be moved in different ways to see which movements elicit pain or weakness. Imaging studies such as X-rays may be ordered to assess for bone deformities such as bone spurs, which may be the cause, or an MRI scan to determine whether the tear is partial or complete.

Treatment Options 

Non-surgical Treatment

Non-surgical treatment is an option for patients whose injury is limited to the top of the biceps tendon. This includes:

  • Rest: A sling is used to rest the shoulder, and you are advised to avoid overhead activities and lifting heavy objects until the bicep tendon has healed.
  • Ice: Applying ice packs for 20 minutes at a time, 3 to 4 times a day, to help reduce swelling.
  • Medications: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines help reduce pain and swelling.
  • Physical therapy: Strengthening and flexibility exercises help restore strength and mobility to the shoulder joint.

Surgical Treatment

Surgery may be necessary for patients whose symptoms are not relieved by conservative measures and for patients who require full restoration of strength, such as athletes.

Your surgeon makes an incision either near your elbow or shoulder, depending on which end of the tendon is torn. The torn end of the tendon is cleaned and the bone is prepared by creating drill holes. Sutures are woven through the holes and the tendon to secure it back to the bone and hold it in place. The incision is then closed and a dressing applied.

Risks and Complications

As with any surgery, complications can occur related to the anesthesia or the procedure. Most patients suffer no complications following biceps tendon repair; however, potential complications include:

  • Infection
  • Nerve damage
  • Re-rupture of the tendon
  • American Board of. Orthopaedic Surgery
  • American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
  • American Society for Surgery of the Hand
  • Wisconsin Orthopaedic Society
  • University of Wisconsin - Madison
  • Stanford Medicine