A Torn Bicep is Not Always Disabling
A torn bicep could be either a torn bicep muscle or a tear in one of the bicep muscle's tendons. In the majority of injuries of this type, it is a tendon that has been damaged. These tears will sometimes come in the vicinity of the shoulder, and at other times at the elbow. A tear in one of the tendons near the elbow is somewhat rare, but it can be much more serious, as the tendon and its muscle will often separate completely from the bone. In most cases, when a biceps muscle or tendon is damaged, the damage occurs in the upper part of the bicep, near the shoulder.
Anatomy of the Biceps
There are two bicep muscles, a short head and a long head. These two muscles operate in parallel, and work as a single muscle. These muscles could be thought of as an elastic band, connected at one end to a shoulder bone, and at the other end to the two forearm bones. When these muscles contract, the bones in the forearm move upwards towards the shoulder while the elbow bends. The tendons connecting the bicep muscles at the shoulder are called the proximal biceps tendons. Those connecting the muscles to the forearm are called the distal biceps tendons.
When either of the two bicep muscles are overstretched, and some of the fibers are consequently torn, it is called a biceps strain. When the tendons near the shoulder are torn or ruptured, it is called a proximal biceps rupture, and if those near the forearm are torn or ruptured, it is called a distal biceps tendon rupture. Another, less serious condition, that sometime affects the biceps is tendonitis.
Torn Biceps Tendons
Tendon tears can occur suddenly, but very often the tendon simply becomes frayed, rather than rupturing completely. What is a bit unusual about the bicep is, because there are two muscles working in parallel, there are two tendons attaching the biceps muscles to the shoulder and two attaching the muscles to the forearm. What that means is, if one tendon is frayed, overstretched, or torn, the other tendon can still function normally. What often happens when a tendon is damaged, is the biceps can still perform their function, but will be weaker because only one of the two muscles is operating at full effectiveness. Usually, a torn tendon is a disabling condition, but that is not always the case with the biceps.
Symptoms of a Torn Biceps
When a tendon is frayed, it can become quite sore. When one is badly torn, the pain can be quite sharp and severe. If the tendon is ruptured, it will sometimes do so with a loud snap. In some cases, the arm will still be usable, but the biceps muscle will be subject to cramping. Depending upon which tendon has been injured, pain will be felt at either the shoulder or the elbow, but usually not on both sides. A tear in one of the elbow tendons is not all that common an occurrence. The forearm may still be able to be moved forward and back in a normal fashion, but it may be difficult, and often painful, to twist the wrist so the palm is either facing up or down. If you place your hand on your biceps while twisting your wrist, you can easily see that the biceps are definitely playing an active role during the twisting movement.
Some Are Affected More Than Others
Because a torn bicep tendon does not usually disable the biceps muscles completely, those who are less active can sometimes live with the condition, plus the condition will often heal over time unless a tendon has completely ruptured. Those who are more active, such as athletes, can be faced with more of a problem. They may experience a loss in performance, as the biceps can become noticeably weaker, even if the pain or discomfort is tolerable.
Torn Bicep Treatment and Recovery
Conventional treatment consists of protecting the biceps from sudden and strenuous movements by applying an elastic bandage, rest, ice, and elevation. These actions, together with pain relievers, can in many instances allow the muscle or tendon to heal on its own. In some cases physical therapy may be advisable to ensure complete recovery. While surgery is seldom necessary, it can at time be beneficial in repairing a damaged tendon, and may be the only option if a tendon or muscle has ruptured.
Recovery normally happens in two steps. First, the damage needs to heal, either on its own using conventional treatment, or from the effects of surgery. The time will vary, depending upon a number of factors, but it typically takes two to three months for biceps to completely heal. Once healing is complete, the two bicep muscles will have become weakened though lack of use. Therefore, it may be six to nine months before recovery is total.
This is an injury in which it pays to heed a doctor's or physical therapist's advice while recovering. Healing progresses slowly, and any attempt to increase the level of activity in the arm too quickly could easily return the situation to square one.