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What Is a Bicep Tear?

Too much stress on the bicep muscle can cause a bicep tear.
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  • Written By: D. Jeffress
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 26 September 2014
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A bicep tear is a painful upper arm injury that usually results from putting too much stress on the muscle, as can occur when trying to lift heavy weights. Tears do not typically occur in the bicep muscle itself; rather, they affect the tendons that connect the muscle to the elbow or shoulder joint. When a bicep tear occurs, a person is likely to experience immediate, sharp pains that gradually become dull aches over a few hours. Some small tears can be treated with rest, ice, painkillers, and physical therapy. Major tears, however, generally require surgery to repair and reconnect tissues in the arm.

Most bicep tears affect the tendon at the top of the muscle, which connects it to the rotator cuff in the shoulder. A tear can occur if a person tries to pick up a heavy object with a straight arm, putting excess pressure on the tendon and stretching it beyond the normal range of motion. Occasionally, tears are the result of chronic overuse of the shoulder joint and arm muscles. A construction worker, for example, might suffer a bicep tear after using a shovel several hours a day over the course of many weeks. Bicep tears on the lower tendons near the elbow are common in weightlifters and people who have to frequently raise and hold heavy objects in their work.

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A person who suffers a bicep tear may feel and hear a snapping sensation as the injury occurs, followed by immediate pain and weakness. He or she may be unable to grasp an object or even raise the arm to shoulder level. Swelling and skin redness are common, followed by purplish bruising within one to three days. The shoulder or elbow is usually very tender to the touch, and the bicep muscle may feel cramped. It is important to keep the arm immobilized and seek medical care as soon as possible following a bicep tear.

A doctor can confirm that a tendon or muscle is damaged by taking x-rays and magnetic resonance imaging scans of the arm. The physician works to identify the exact site of the tear and gauge its severity to determine the best course of treatment. A patient who has a mild tear is usually instructed to avoid using his or her arm for several weeks, take anti-inflammatory medications, and apply ice regularly to ease symptoms. Once the arm starts feeling better, he or she can begin a regimen of guided physical therapy to rebuild strength. A minimally-invasive surgery can be considered if conservative treatments fail or if a tendon is too damaged to heal on its own.

People can take steps to reduce the risk of bicep tears. It is essential to stretch and warm up properly before lifting weights or engaging in other types of strenuous physical activity. If the shoulder or bicep muscle starts feeling sore, a person should take a break from activity for a few days to prevent unnecessary damage to the tendons.

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