What Does a Torn Biceps Feel Like and Does It Require Surgery?

You don’t have to look like Popeye or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to experience a torn biceps muscle. While some are definitely bigger and more prominent than others, everyone has biceps muscles and can be prone to injuring them. 

A biceps injury can reduce your strength and make moving your arm painful. Fortunately, most biceps injuries are not severe and can be successfully treated without surgery. 

Keep reading to learn about the symptoms, causes, risk factors, and treatment options for torn biceps muscles.

What Is the Biceps Muscle?

The biceps is a large muscle in the front of your upper arm that helps you turn your hand and flex your arm and forearm. It has two tendons that attach to your shoulder bones and one that attaches to your elbow.

The most common biceps injuries are tendonitis (inflammation caused by micro tears in the tendon) and partial or complete tendon tears. 

What Causes a Torn Biceps?

Some biceps tears are caused by a one-time injury, such as falling hard on your outstretched arm or lifting too much weight. In other cases, injury happens gradually over time, as the tendon wears down or frays from activity and repeated motion, which is called an “overuse” injury. 

People that work in certain manual labor jobs (like movers and construction workers) or athletes that participate in sports that require heavy lifting or overhead movement (such as weightlifting and swimming) may experience more wear and tear on their tendons and may have an increased risk for a torn biceps. Men also have a higher risk of a tear than women.

A torn biceps can happen at your shoulder or elbow and can be either a partial or complete tear. Partial tears don’t completely sever the tendon, while a complete tear splits the tendon into two pieces.

The “long head” of the biceps tendon is much more likely to tear than the “short head.” Because the short head is typically still attached, most people can still use their biceps to move their arm, even when there is a complete tear of the long head.

What Does a Torn Biceps Feel Like? 

With a fall or lifting injury, you will likely feel sudden, severe pain in your upper arm or near your elbow depending on where the tendon has torn. You may also hear a pop or feel a snap in the arm. 

In the case of a biceps injury caused by overuse, pain typically increases gradually over time.

Signs of Torn Biceps

The symptoms of biceps muscle tears may include:

  • Sharp pain near your shoulder, elbow, or upper arm
  • Bruise on your upper arm or forearm 
  • Weakness in your shoulder or elbow
  • Pain when rotating your arm from the “palm down” to “palm up” position
  • Cramping when doing strenuous arm activities
  • Tenderness at your shoulder or elbow
  • Visible gap at the front of your elbow 
  • Changes in the shape of your biceps in the upper arm or a dent near your shoulder 

How Do You Treat Torn Biceps Muscles?

If you think you may have a torn biceps, a doctor for shoulder or elbow pain can examine your arm and diagnose the type of tear you have. They may ask you to bend and rotate your arm and tighten your biceps muscle. 

If necessary, your physician may order an X-ray or MRI to rule out any other problems that may be causing your pain or to confirm the diagnosis. Conditions such as rotator cuff injuries, shoulder impingement, and tendinitis can sometimes occur along with torn biceps muscles and have many of the same symptoms. 

In most cases of a torn biceps, when it occurs at the shoulder level, people can still function normally and successfully treat the injury with conservative methods, including:

  • Rest and avoid the activities that cause pain
  • Icing the area to reduce swelling and pain 
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (e.g., ibuprofen, aspirin) 
  • Physical therapy or occupational therapy (if needed)

Do All Biceps Tears Require Surgery?

When the injury occurs at the shoulder, most people don’t require surgery to repair a torn biceps. However, if symptoms don’t improve with conservative treatments, surgery is sometimes recommended to help a patient fully recover.  Some athletes or those with certain manual labor jobs may opt for surgery to regain full strength in their biceps after a tear. 

When the injury occurs at the elbow, surgery is often recommended as patients with tears at this location can see a 30 to 40% decrease in strength without surgical repair.

Surgery to repair a torn biceps tendon can typically be done with minimal incisions. The goal is to reattach the torn tendon to the bone. One common procedure attaches the tendon with stitches through holes drilled into the bone. Another method uses small metal implants called suture anchors or “buttons” to secure the tendon.

An orthopedic surgeon can talk to you about your options and help determine if surgery is right for you.

Trust the Biceps Specialists at IHTSC

For over 50 years, Indiana Hand to Shoulder Center has provided complete care for hand, wrist, elbow, and shoulder injuries, disorders, and conditions. 

Our goal is to help relieve your pain and help you regain function after an injury. IHTSC’s world-renowned group of hand surgeons, advanced practice providers, and experienced therapists will always explore conservative treatment options first and consider surgery only if necessary.

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