Bicipital or biceps tendonitis refers to the inflammation of the tendon that connects the upper biceps with the shoulder.
Anatomical considerations: The biceps muscle is used to bend (flex) the elbow, rotate the arm (supination) and is important to stabilise the shoulder joint. The proximal end of the biceps muscle is connected to the shoulder by the short head inserting to the coracoid process and the long head, which attaches the biceps to the supraglenoid tubercle and the glenoid labrum. The distal tendon at the elbow is attached to the proximal end of the radius. Tendonitis of the long biceps tendon is caused by a prolonged inflammation of the collagenous tissue forming the tendon. As a result of the inflammation the tendon degenerates and becomes reddish, swollen, weak and more prone to a tear. With its complete rupture, the biceps muscle is deformed and on contraction it produces a bulging swelling above the elbow joint, which is often referred to as “Popeye arm”. This pathology is often found in concomitance with other conditions of the shoulder such as arthritis, instability and impingement, tear of the glenoid labrum and other inflammatory conditions of the joint.
The severity of the disease is divided into three grades:
Grade 1: thickened nodules in the palmar aponeurosis, skin colour changes
Grade 2: formation of pretendinous and cords, limited finger extension
Grade 3: permanent contracture of the affected finger(s)
Inflammation of the long biceps tendon is mostly due to prolonged overuse by repetitive overhead activities. It can also result from a sudden injury caused by an excessive force applied to the biceps tendons whilst lifting or carrying a heavy weight with the upper extremity. Additional factors can contribute to long biceps tendonitis:
Tear of the rotator cuff
Joint stiffness especially of the elbow
Lack of, or excessive training
Inadequate warm up
Weakness of the muscles
Tightness of the biceps
Men between 20 and 40 years are more often affected by this pathology. Those individuals regularly active in golfing, swimming, tennis, baseball, basketball as well as those involved in heavy weight lifting are at greater risk to develop long biceps tendonitis.
The main symptom of long biceps tendonitis is pain in the front of the shoulder and upper arm, which is exacerbated during overhead activity and weight lifting. Frequent is a sensation of pain whilst extending the arm. Occasionally snapping or catching noises can be heard during moving the shoulder.
A detailed medical history is recorded to assess past injuries of the shoulder, pre-existing chronic inflammatory conditions, predisposing physical activities and a description of ongoing symptoms. Medical examination includes:
Palpation of the shoulder
Identification of movement restriction
Testing for reduced muscular strength of the biceps
X-rays are only performed to exclude other pathologies of the shoulder joint. Ultrasound and MRI are not routinely recommended but are also employed to better visualise the integrity of the biceps tendon
Conservative treatment is the most common approach to long biceps tendonitis. Rest from those activities causing stress to the tendon and daily applications of ice pads are recommended. Administration of NSAIDs is efficacious to reduce inflammation, swelling and pain. Injection of steroids within the tendon can be done but presents the risk of further weakening the tendon, possibly leading to its rupture.
Different surgical methods are available to treat long biceps tendonitis. The outcome of surgery is usually satisfactory, however in some cases those athletes involved in high demanding sports may need to reduce their activities.
Arthroscopic surgery This surgical approach is performed to determine the status of the tendon and of other components of the shoulder. A debridement can be performed to smoothen the tendon by removing the irregular fibres that have been damaged.
Biceps Tenodesis Arthroscopic scissors are inserted via a small incision to severe the long head biceps tendon. Once exposed, the tendon is cut and then fixed to the humerus head using a screw.
Biceps Tenotomy Arthroscopic scissors are inserted via a small incision to the shoulder to cut the long head biceps tendon without reconnection to the bone. Despite being detached the functional impairment of the shoulder is minimal. Following tenotomy, the function of the biceps muscle is maintained by the short head biceps tendon.
Most patients with long biceps tendonitis recover well following a rehabilitation program and are able to return to normal activities after a few weeks or, in more severe cases, after a few months. After surgery, the use of a sling is recommended for up to three weeks to allow for the repair of the tendon. The sling is always kept on during the night and while walking but it can be removed for restricted daily activities (showering, changing of clothes). Following this period of immobilisation, an intensive rehabilitative therapy can begin under the guidance of a physiotherapist. This focuses on reacquiring flexibility of the shoulder and elbow as well as strengthening the biceps muscle. Therapy includes massage, stretching exercises and preparing the patient to a gradual return to strenuous physical work.
A guided education on physical activities is crucial to prevent the recurrence of long biceps tendonitis. Regular stretching exercise, warm up and avoidance of heavy weights are key elements for maintaining a strong biceps tendon and muscle. Particular care should be taken in the transition from rehabilitation therapy to sport activity.