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What to Know About Biceps Rupture

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on May 27, 2021

A biceps rupture is a major arm injury. Your biceps muscles are located in your upper arms, and they’re responsible for the motion of your shoulder and elbow. If you sustain damage to the tendon that connects your biceps to your bones, it can rupture painfully. When it does, your biceps will tense into a painful ball that resembles the arms of the 1930’s cartoon character Popeye, which is why this injury is sometimes called a “ Popeye’s muscle” or “Popeye Deformity”.

Understanding A Biceps Rupture

A biceps rupture occurs when you tear the tendon that runs from your shoulder to your elbow, called the distal biceps tendon. A tear may happen anywhere along the tendon, although tears are most likely occur close to the shoulder or elbow.‌

A biceps rupture usually occurs when a person attempts to catch a heavy object without being prepared for it. When the biceps muscle contracts to receive the force of the object, and the elbow straightens with the impact, the resulting forces cause the tendon to tear.

Most tears occur when your tendons are already weakened by a preexisting condition like tendonosis. If you’re a smoker, or if you aren’t physically active, you may be more susceptible to a biceps rupture.

Diagnosing Biceps Rupture

A biceps rupture happens quickly, so you may feel a sudden and severe pain in your arm along the biceps muscle. You may also hear or feel a popping sensation. Other signs of a biceps rupture include:

  • Sharp pain in your shoulder or elbow
  • A bruise that appears near the site of the pain
  • Weakness in your shoulder or elbow
  • Difficulty rotating your arm 
  • A noticeable swelling or curling of the biceps

It’s important that you not panic, because this injury isn’t life-threatening, but you need to see a doctor immediately if you suspect that you have ruptured your biceps. With quick treatment, you’ll likely regain your full arm function. Within weeks, the tendon will scar, and treatment becomes more difficult.

During a physical exam, your doctor looks for visual signs of a rupture, as well as weakness or immobility of your arm.

Your doctor may use an x-ray or MRI scan to rule out other injuries and make sure that you get the proper course of treatment. These diagnostic exams also show the severity of the tear, which will determine what the next steps are. You may have a partial tear, or the tendon might be completely severed from your arm.

Treating a Biceps Rupture

Quick treatment is the key to ensuring your biceps tendon heals completely following a rupture. If you have a partial tear, your doctor may recommend:

  • Using ice or cold packs to keep the swelling down and manage your pain
  • Resting and avoiding heavy lifting or extreme movements of your arm
  • Pursuing physical therapy to promote healing and strengthen the surrounding muscles
  • Corticosteroid injections in severe cases to prevent inflammation

If your tendon has completely disconnected from your shoulder or elbow, you’ll need surgery to reattach it. The specific details of the surgery will depend on your injury, but technological advances mean that minimally invasive surgery is possible, and you may avoid a large incision or scar. You’ll need to do physical rehabilitation to regain your previous mobility, but this usually only takes a few months.

Once you’re completely healed, it’s important to avoid the activity or motion that caused the tear to begin with. Warm up your muscles before doing strenuous activities and stop if you feel any pain. Pursue strength training if you’ve lost strength during your rehabilitation so that you can resume your usual activities.

If the rupture was caused by an underlying condition, like tendonosis, your doctor may recommend a course of treatment for that as well. Tendonosis, a chronic condition in which tendons becomes thick and rubbery, can be treated with a minor surgery.

Conclusion

A biceps rupture can be very painful, but you’ll likely get your full arm function back after treatment. Make sure to get to the doctor right away if you think you’ve torn your tendon, and follow any treatment guidelines carefully.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Cleveland Clinic: “Biceps Tendon Injuries,” “Tendinitis or Tendinosis? Why the Difference Is Important, What Treatments Help.”

HSS: “Biceps Tendon Rupture/Tear.”

University Hospitals: “Treatment Expertise for Biceps Rupture.”

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