A rupture of the biceps tendon refers to the severing of the short or long head of the biceps tendon in proximity of the shoulder joint, or the distal end of the biceps tendon near the elbow.
The biceps muscle is the largest muscle of the upper arm, which is used when bending the arm or lifting weights. The biceps tendons connect the biceps muscle to the shoulder and the elbow. The upper biceps tendon has two endings, one that connects to the glenoid (long head, right) and the other to the coracoid process (short head, left). The lower part of the biceps has one tendon inserting to the elbow.
The rupture of any section of the biceps tendon can be complete or partial. The long head of the biceps tendon is more frequently subjected to rupture than the short head. A complete tear of the proximal long head biceps tendon is visible through the formation of a bump of the biceps at the elbow. The rupture of the distal biceps tendon is located near the elbow. In this case the biceps muscle retracts towards the shoulder joint. The patient is unable to flex the elbow and has difficulties to supinate (turn hand upwards). A rupture to the biceps tendon can be determined by other pathologies including chronic biceps tendonitis, shoulder impingement and rotator cuff injury.
A repetitive and prolonged use of the shoulder and upper arm may fray the biceps tendons. This leads to the development of tendon inflammation or tendonitis, followed by an initial partial tear, possibly leading to a complete rupture of the tendon when executing a sudden and strenuous movement. A tendon rupture severely impairs the use of the arm. The causes leading to a biceps tendon rupture are:
Tear of the rotator cuff
Joint stiffness particularly of the elbow
Lack of, or excessive training
Inadequate warm up
Weakness of the muscles
Tightness of the biceps
A rupture to the biceps tendon is more frequent in males above 35 years of age. Sports and professions involving strenuous activities of the shoulders and arms represent the main risk factors for this pathology. In addition, the ageing process per se with the weakening of all tendons and muscles is a significant risk factor for biceps tendon rupture. Professions and sports posing risk for his pathology include:
Symptoms of a biceps tendon rupture include:
Sudden, sharp pain sometimes accompanied by a snap or pop
Formation of bruise extending to the lower arm
Presence of a hump especially when contracting the arm
Weakness of the arm and shoulder
Impairment in rotating the arm
All these symptoms are less evident with partial tear of the biceps tendon.
Medical examination begins by acquiring patient's health history including a description of the injurious event that may have caused a biceps tendon rupture. Evident signs for biceps tendon rupture include:
complete tear forming a “Popeye muscle” (proximal tear)
in partial tear, biceps contraction causing pain
tear of the distal biceps tendon causes a gap in the front of elbow.
The examiner will also assess for possible concomitant injuries: rotator cuff tear, impingement, and biceps tendonitis. X-rays are advised to identify potential changes in the bones of the shoulder if additional pathologies are suspected. MRI and ultrasound aid the classification in complete or partial tear of the biceps tendon.
Conservative treatment is the most frequent option even in complete tear of the biceps tendons. It is recommended the following:
Rest from any sport activities
Application of ice pads
Administration of NSAIDs
If severe deformity or weakness occur or in case of specific professions, surgery is required. The procedure consists in re-attaching the tendon to the bone. When the rupture of the biceps tendon has occurred weeks before the diagnosis, the tendon needs to be retrieved surgically prior to being attached to the bone.
Rehabilitative treatment for a biceps tendon rupture involves:
Initial arm immobilisation with a sling
Ice or heat applications
Exercise to gain flexibility and strength of the biceps muscle
Massage to increase blood flow
Stretching to improve flexibility of the biceps muscle and tendon.
Preventing recidivism of biceps tendon rupture consists in modifying a number of behaviours such as:
Warm up and stretching before sport activities
Maintain a regular exercise regime
Use of appropriate training techniques