Biceps Tendon Tears – When Not to Push Through the Pain

From a young age we’ve heard; “no pain, no gain.”  Some even see it as a personal challenge.  And while a youthful body can be forgiving when pushed beyond its limits, an adult one is not.

Pain is our body’s warning to either stop or proceed with caution.  Ignoring this or “pushing through” could come at a cost, particularly as we get older.

As working professionals workouts are less frequent and muscle mass, correspondingly, less sufficient to sustain the same weights and reps.

Additionally, as we age, our musculoskeletal system changes.  Joints, tendons and ligaments are feeling the cumulative effects of decades of activity.  To ensure decades more, we need to be smart in our workout routines and the challenges we’re willing to take on.

One injury we often see in men ages 40 – 60 are biceps tendon tears and ruptures.  This often happens when the biceps tendon experiences chronic wear as a result of lifting excessive weights or participating in aggressive contact sports.  It can also occur in those performing repetitive overhead lifting or work in occupations requiring regular heavy lifting.

The Biceps Muscle and the Difference between a Tear and a Rupture

The biceps muscle is located in the front of the upper arm and helps to bend and rotate the arm. It has two tendons; 1.) the long head and the short head of the biceps, which attach the muscle to the shoulder, and 2.) the distal biceps tendon, which attaches at the elbow/forearm.

The terms biceps tear and biceps rupture are often used interchangeably and occur when the biceps muscle is torn from the bone at the point of tendon attachment, either at the shoulder or the elbow.  A tear could represent either a partial or a complete tear.

Biceps tendon tears most often occur at the long head of the biceps at the upper arm bone.  It rarely occurs at the elbow, unless trauma from a sudden accident occurs.

While biceps tears do not repair themselves and can limit full function of the arm unless surgically repaired, those occurring at the elbow cause greater arm weakness than those occurring more commonly at the shoulder/upper arm.

Indications of a Biceps Tendon Tear or Rupture

  • A “pop” or snap at the shoulder or elbow.
  • Sharp pain in the upper arm.
  • Bruising and swelling in the affected area.
  • Weakness and tenderness in the shoulder or when bending the elbow, rotating the forearm, or lifting the arm overhead.
  • A deformity/bulge in the lower part of the biceps referred to as “Popeye arm.”

Treatment of a Distal Biceps Tendon Tear

Following a physical examination and functional testing, the severity of the injury will be determined.  While physical therapy may suffice for elderly patients with low upper body demands, surgery is generally indicated for younger patients.  This may entail either a nonanatomic repair to the brachialis or, most commonly, an anatomic repair to the radial tuberosity [1].

The surgical approach has evolved from an anterior approach to a two-incision approach and most recently to a single-incision approach with a bone anchor or ENDOBUTTON™.

Advantages of this approach include anatomical reinsertion, flexion restoration and supination strengthening [2].

Preventing Biceps Tendon Rupture

  • Maintain equal strength throughout the arm – biceps/triceps, elbow and forearm – and in the shoulders.
  • Avoid repetitive overhead lifting of excessive weight.
  • Use the entire upper body when lowering heaving objects to the ground.
  • Avoid steroid use and smoking, as they weaken muscles and tendons and inhibit muscle recovery and growth.

References

  1. Ward JP, Shreve MC, Youm T, Strauss EJ. Ruptures of the distal biceps tendon. Bull Hosp Jt Dis (2013). 2014;72(1):110–119. Article Summary in PubMed.
  2. Tarrallo L, Lombardi M, Zambianchi F, Giogini A, Cantani F. Distal biceps tendon rupture: advantages and drawbacks of the anatomical reinsertion with a modified double incision approach.BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2018;19:364. Full articles online.