A biceps rupture involves a complete tear of the main tendon that attaches the top of the biceps muscle to the shoulder. It happens most often in middle-aged people and is usually due to years of wear and tear on the shoulder. A torn biceps in younger athletes sometimes occurs during weightlifting or from actions that cause a sudden load on the arm, such as hard fall with the arm outstretched.
This guide will help you understand
- What parts of the shoulder are affected
- The causes of a biceps rupture
- Ways to treat this problem
What parts of the shoulder are affected?
The biceps muscle goes from the shoulder to the elbow on the front of the upper arm. Two separate tendons (tendons attach muscles to bones) connect the upper part of the biceps muscle to the shoulder. The upper two tendons of the biceps are called the proximal biceps tendons, because they are closer to the top of the arm.
The main proximal tendon is the long head of the bicep. It connects the biceps muscle to the top of the shoulder socket, the glenoid. Beginning at the glenoid, the tendon of the long head of the biceps travels down the front of the upper arm. The tendon runs within the bicipital groove and is held in place by the transverse humeral ligament.
The short head of the biceps connects to the corocoid process of the scapula. The coracoid process is a small bony knob just in from the front of the shoulder. The lower biceps tendon near the elbow is called the distal biceps tendon. The word distal means the tendon is further down the arm. The lower part of the biceps muscle connects to the elbow by this tendon.
The muscles forming the short and long heads of the biceps stay separate until just above the elbow where they unite and connect to the distal biceps tendon. Tendons are made up of strands of a material called collagen. The collagen strands are lined up in bundles next to each other.
Because the collagen strands in tendons are lined up, tendons have high tensile strength. This means they can withstand high forces that pull on both ends of the tendon. When muscles work, they pull on one end of the tendon. The other end of the tendon pulls on the bone, causing the bone to move.
Contracting the biceps muscle can bend the elbow upward. The biceps can also help flex the shoulder, lifting the arm up, a movement called flexion. And the muscle can rotate, or twist, the forearm in a way that points the palm of the hand up. This movement is called supination, which positions the hand as if you were holding a tray.
Related Document: A Patient’s Guide to Shoulder Anatomy
Why did my biceps rupture?
Biceps ruptures generally occur in people who are between 40 and 60 years old. People in this age group who’ve had shoulder problems for a long time are at the most risk. Often the biceps ruptures after a long history of shoulder pain from tendonitis (inflammation of the tendon) or problems with shoulder impingement. Shoulder impingement is a condition where the soft tissues between the ball of the upper arm and the top of the shoulder blade (acromion) get squeezed with arm motion.
Related Document: A Patient’s Guide to Impingement Syndrome
Years of shoulder wear and tear begin to fray the biceps tendon. Eventually, the long head of the biceps weakens and becomes prone to tears or ruptures. Examination of the tissues within most torn or ruptured biceps tendons commonly show signs of degeneration.
Degeneration in a tendon causes a loss of the normal arrangement of the collagen fibers that join together to form the tendon. Some of the individual strands of the tendon become jumbled due to degeneration, other fibers break, and the tendon loses strength.
A rupture of the biceps tendon can happen from a seemingly minor injury. When it happens for no apparent reason, the rupture is called nontraumatic.
Aging adults with rotator cuff tears also commonly have a biceps tendon rupture. When the rotator cuff is torn, the ball of the humerus is free to move too far up and forward in the shoulder socket and can impact the biceps tendon. The damage may begin to weaken the biceps tendon and cause it to eventually rupture.
Related Document: A Patient’s Guide to Rotator Cuff Tears
What does a ruptured bicep feel like?
Patients often recall hearing and feeling a snap in the top of the shoulder. Immediate and sharp pain follows. The pain often subsides quickly with a complete rupture because tension is immediately taken off the pain sensors in the tendon.
Soon afterward, bruising may develop in the middle of the upper arm and spread down to the elbow. The biceps may appear to have balled up, especially in younger patients who’ve had a traumatic biceps rupture. The arm may feel weak at first with attempts to bend the elbow or lift the shoulder.
The biceps tendon sometimes only tears part of the way. If so, a pop may not be felt or heard. Instead, the front of the shoulder may simply be painful, and the arm may feel weak with the same arm movements that are affected by a complete biceps rupture.
How can my doctor be sure my biceps ruptured?
Your doctor will first take a detailed medical history. You will need to answer questions about your shoulder, if you feel pain or weakness, and how this is affecting your regular activities. You’ll also be asked about past shoulder pain or injuries.
The physical exam is often most helpful in diagnosing a rupture of the biceps tendon. Your doctor may position your arm to see which movements are painful or weak. By feeling the area of the muscle and tendon, the doctor can often tell if the tendon has ruptured. The muscle may look and feel balled up in the middle of the arm, and a dent can sometimes be felt near the top of the shoulder.
X-rays may be ordered. X-rays show the bones that form the shoulder joint and may show bony changes that have contributed to a ruptured biceps. For example, bone spurs (small projections of bone) may be seen on the X-ray. Spurs that form near the biceps tendon will often puncture the tendon as the arm is used with an activity. X-rays can also show if there are other problems, such as a fracture. Plain X-rays do not show soft tissues like tendons and will not show a biceps rupture.
Your doctor may also order a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. This is the most reliable way to check whether the biceps tendon is only partially torn or if the tendon actually ruptured. An MRI is a special imaging test that uses magnetic waves to create pictures of the shoulder in slices. The MRI can also show if there are other problems in the shoulder.
Doctors usually treat a ruptured long head of the biceps tendon without surgery. This is especially true for older individuals who can tolerate the loss of arm strength or if the injury occurs in the non-dominant arm.
Not having surgery usually only results in a moderate loss of strength. The short head of the biceps is still attached and continues to supply strength to raise the arm up. Flexion of the elbow may be affected, but supination (the motion of twisting the forearm such as when you use a screwdriver) is usually affected more. Not repairing a ruptured biceps reduces supination strength by about 20 percent.
Nonsurgical measures could include a sling to rest the shoulder. Patients may be given anti-inflammatory medicine to help ease pain and swelling and to help return people to activity sooner after a biceps tendon rupture. These medications include common over-the-counter drugs such as ibuprofen.
Doctors may have their patients work with a physical or occupational therapist. At first, your therapist will give you tips on how to rest your shoulder and how to do your activities without putting extra strain on the sore area.
Your therapist may apply ice and electrical stimulation to ease the pain. Exercises are used to gradually strengthen other muscles that help do the work of a normal biceps muscle.
Surgery is reserved for patients who need arm strength, are concerned with cosmetics of the balled-up biceps, or who have pain that won’t go away.
Biceps tenodesis is a surgery to anchor the ruptured end of the biceps tendon back to the bone. This procedure can be done arthroscopically (with tiny incisions and a camera) or through a larger open incision. When it’s done arthroscopically, suture anchors are placed adjacent to the tendon in the bicipital groove. The sutures are passed through the tendon in a locking stitch configuration and tied to secure the tendon to the bone. This technique is less invasive but not quite as strong as the open procedure.
A common open method, called the subpectoral technique, involves attaching the ruptured end to the upper part of the humerus. A small hole is made by Dr. Kiritsis in the humerus. The end of the tendon is slid into the hole and the sutures are pulled out of a separate drill hole and tied down, securing the tendon into the bone.
Dr. Kiritsis begins by making an incision on the front of the shoulder, just below the axilla (armpit). The overlying muscles are separated so Dr. Kiritsis can locate the damaged end of the biceps tendon. The end of the biceps tendon is prepared by cutting away frayed and degenerated tissue.
A burr is used to form a hole within the humerus adjacent to the pectoralis tendon. The tendon is sutured and a second drill hole is used to pass the sutures through. These are tied down securing the tendon to the bone.
Dr. Kiritsis tests the stability of the attachment by bending and straightening the elbow. When he is satisfied with the repair, the skin incisions are closed, and the shoulder is placed in a protective sling.
In cases where the ruptured biceps tendon is treated nonsurgically, you will need to avoid heavy arm activity for three to four weeks. As the pain and swelling resolve, you should be safe to begin doing more normal activities.
If the tendon is only partially torn, however, recovery takes longer. Patients usually need to rest the shoulder using a protective sling. As symptoms ease, a carefully progressed rehabilitation program under the supervision of a physical or occupational therapist usually follows. This often involves four to six weeks of therapy.
Immediately after surgery, you’ll need to wear your shoulder sling for about four weeks. Dr. Kiritsis prefers to have his patients start a gentle range-of-motion program soon after surgery. When you start therapy, your first few therapy sessions may involve ice and electrical stimulation treatments to help control pain and swelling from the surgery. Your therapist may also use massage and other types of hands-on treatments to ease muscle spasms and pain.
You will gradually start exercises to improve movement in the forearm, elbow, and shoulder. You need to be careful to avoid doing too much, too quickly.
Heavier exercises for the biceps muscle are avoided until at least eight weeks after surgery. Your therapist may begin with light isometric strengthening exercises. These exercises work the biceps muscle without straining the healing tendon.
At about eight to twelve weeks, you start doing more active strengthening. As you progress, your therapist will teach you exercises to strengthen and stabilize the muscles and joints of the elbow and shoulder. Other exercises will work your arm in ways that are similar to your work tasks and sports activities. Your therapist will help you find ways to do your tasks that don’t put too much stress on your shoulder.
You may require therapy for twelve weeks. It generally takes three to four months, however, to safely begin doing forceful biceps activity after surgery. Before your therapy sessions end, your therapist will teach you a number of ways to avoid future problems.