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Did Your Elbow Pop While Lifting Something Heavy? How to Recognize Biceps Tendon Tears

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When people experience muscle pain as a result of an injury, they often think it’s “just a sprain” and delay seeking treatment to see if the injury will heal on its own. In the case of a torn biceps tendon, this approach could cost you. Elbow specialist Dr. Alexander Rowland tells me why.

So what is the biceps tendon?
Tendons attach muscle to bone in the human body. Your biceps muscle is the muscle in the front of your upper arm. It is attached to bone by two tendons at the shoulder, and one tendon at the elbow. The biceps muscle helps to stabilize your shoulder, bend your elbow, and rotate your forearm. In this example, we’ll be looking at the distal biceps tendon, which attaches the biceps muscle to the radius (a bone in the forearm). 

How would someone tear their distal biceps tendon?
Distal biceps tendon ruptures occur when the tendon is overloaded and it tears off of the radius. This usually happens when someone tries to lift an object that is too heavy or lifts an object at an odd angle. When the biceps muscle is flexed against resistance and is suddenly pulled strait, the tendon fails at its insertion and pulls off of the bone. 

Ouch! That sounds painful! Can it happen to anyone?
Yes, biceps tendon tears can happen to anyone, but these types of ruptures are most common in men between the ages of 40 and 60.

What symptoms would someone experience if they have ruptured their distal biceps tendon?
At the moment of injury, most people will feel a “pop” in the elbow, followed by pain and swelling. Other indications that you may have a torn biceps tendon include:

  • Bruising on the front and inside of the elbow which develops within 24 hours of injury
  • Weakness and increased pain when you flex your elbow or rotate your forearm
  • The biceps muscle can look like it is positioned higher in the arm, toward the shoulder, as it has recoiled and shortened from the elbow

If you notice some combination of these symptoms after lifting (or attempting to lift) something heavy, you should contact your physician for evaluation and treatment within a week, even if your symptoms seem to be improving.

What’s wrong with waiting to see if it improves without treatment?
A rupture of the distal biceps tendon cannot repair itself. The tendon cannot reattach itself to the bone and so surgical intervention is needed. 

Unfortunately, many people underestimate the severity of their injury and delay seeking treatment because:

  • They can still move their arm, so they assume it’s just an elbow sprain/strain
  • The pain is not terrible, so they think it’s not too serious
  • The swelling/bruising generally subsides over 10-14 days, giving the appearance of healing

The downside to a delay in diagnosis and treatment is that surgical correction may no longer be possible, resulting in permanent dysfunction of the arm. Loss of bicep function through a distal rupture results in decreased strength of up to 40%. Although there are other muscles to help compensate for this loss, full strength is never regained without surgical repair.

When does surgery need to be done for a torn biceps tendon?
The best time to perform surgery (primary operative reinsertion) for a distal biceps tendon rupture is within 2-3 weeks of injury. After this time period, scarring and shortening of the tendon make successful treatment more difficult and sometimes impossible. 

What does the surgery involve?
In surgery, your physician will reattach the biceps tendon to the forearm. The procedure is performed in an outpatient surgery center, and typically takes about an hour. Patients are discharged home in a splint to follow up in 7-10 days. Full unrestricted recovery takes 3-4 months, but use of the arm for daily activities is possible within 2-3 weeks.

Dr. Alexander S. Rowland is a board certified orthopedic surgeon, fellowship trained in the treatment of conditions of the hand, wrist, and elbow. He treats patients aged 6 years and older and has a special interest in distal biceps tendon tears, with over 150 cases performed. To schedule an appointment with Dr. Rowland, please call 210.281.9595.

21 thoughts on “Did Your Elbow Pop While Lifting Something Heavy? How to Recognize Biceps Tendon Tears”

  1. Marcy Sellers says:

    I popped elbow out severe pain and swelling… Can’t straighten arm and sleep and grip in left hand… Can still work and play piano but limited severe pain and swelling…hurts in shoulder can’t hold cellphone very long grrr…

  2. Richard says:

    Is it possible for a Distal Bicep Rupture, but for your bicep to not be recoiled closer to your shoulder?

    1. The San Antonio Orthopaedic Group says:

      With a distal bicep rupture (and especially a partial tear), it is possible for the bicep not to visibly recoil toward the shoulder.

  3. Shubi says:

    I have a sore arm by my upper arm and i dont know if i tore it its bruised a bit painfull im weak know it happened after i picked this huge miriba! Can u plz help i can still mice it but Its painful

    1. The San Antonio Orthopaedic Group says:

      I would recommend scheduling an evaluation with an elbow specialist to rule out serious injury if you have not already done so.

  4. Phil Conderman says:

    Had a pop in my elbow. Didn’t notice any swelling but had a shooting pain through my right arm. Hurts to twist my forearm when twisting a screw driver and hard to grip things. Don’t feel any bumps or noticed any recoil in my bicep, forearm muscle feels warm from time to time.

  5. Gerald says:

    I was lifting weights today with my football team and after I got done with a set(Bench pressing) my elbow was just hurting really bad when I would flex or try to touch my shoulder with my hand. Im pretty sure its my anterior band in my left elbow. What do I do?
    Email
    19cummingsg@limestone310.org

  6. mark says:

    Last night I heard a popping sound and right now I feel pain in my anterior band. I don’t see bruising, It hurts to bend my arm though I can still do everything without too much issue. I don’t need to be worried right?

  7. Blake Edwards says:

    I was lifting something very heavy in one arm much the way I would curi a barbell. At the same time I bumped my elbow and biceps muscle against the car bumper. i heard the sound of wooded chimes being strummed as something gave and caused pain in the inner elbow area and it I could not extend my elbow it only did not hurt if i kept it closed.

  8. Steve says:

    Hi,
    I was getting out of the car and my elbow popped. It felt like I hit my ulnar nerve, instant numbness in my pinky and ring fingers and shooting pain down my forearm. Now there’s a bruise on the back of my elbow.

    Nothing looks out of place.
    Thoughts?

  9. Lori says:

    I injured my right elbow on Thanksgiving day 2016 they say it’s Golfers elbow, it’s been 10 weeks today, I’m still fighting with a Private self insured wormanscomp, the representative won’t return my phone calls so I hired an Attorney after that my MRI was approved I have a torn they found from an injury in May 2014, the Dr my employer made me go to suggested me to go to an Orthopedic Surgeon for their opion, but my employer Workmans comp won’t anwser my calls. IDK what to do I’m going to my Attorney tomorrow. Wish me the best, I’m tired of being on light duty and want my life back to normal!

  10. Kellie says:

    I’m concerned because I felt a pop in my shoulder and elbow. My ROM is severely restricted and went to the ER they recommended follow up with ORTHO asap. I’ll be waiting 3 weeks before being seen. I’m in moderate to severe pain and afraid to lose use. Is it safe to wait that long or should I seek quicker treatment??

    1. The San Antonio Orthopaedic Group says:

      If you are concerned and in severe pain, I would contact your orthopedic surgeon to see about moving up your appointment or find someone with better availability.

  11. Sean King says:

    I was doing alternate planks and when I leaned on one are I heard a popping sound and it was excruciating. I can barely turn it and sudden movements kill. Any suggestions?

    1. Sean King says:

      Meant to arm.

  12. Samantha Sailing says:

    I had this surgery and repair done a little over a year ago. It worked wonders! I felt great, my arm and elbow never hurt again. Until….. the other day, I was helping lift something heavy, it has hurt ever since. It hurts like it did right before I had the surgery. My question is, Can the clips used in the reattachment, come off? Or can it re-tear again very easily?

  13. Leann Kelsey says:

    Felt/heard a pop in my arm just above the elbow while lifting heavy object. Having pain in bicep area and shoulder, some movement limitations. I previously injured this arm (severed tendon, nerve, and arteries). This happened 2 days ago. Should I go get it looked at and if so do I go to my primary doctor?

  14. Jadyn says:

    I was playing basketball today and my elbow popped leaving me in serious pain for about 20 minutes and then the pain started to go away but it still hurts to straighten or bend my elbow as well as lifting heavy objects. I have had elbow pain before this for about 3 weeks now. What should I do?

  15. Bicky das says:

    I feel my elbow very heavy and a popping sound occurs. And there always remains a little pain. I remember i had that popping sound first time at the gym while lifting weights. And now even i feel the popping sound in the wrist also. I can’t play piano, guitar, any instrument. I can’t do my work properly. ­čś¬

  16. Dean Ramser says:

    I heard the popping while moving last month. I thought the discomfort would end. It didn’t. I thought the weakness and pain would end. It didn’t. One month later, today I will see the doctor.


NOTE: We cannot provide medical advice or diagnoses without seeing a patient in person.

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