Overview of Distal Triceps Tears
The triceps is a muscle on the back of the upper arm that helps straighten the elbow and support elbow stability. It begins at the shoulder, crosses the elbow joint and attaches to the ulna, a bone in the forearm. Like the name suggests, the triceps has three components, or “heads”: the long head originates from the infraglenoid tubercle of the scapula, and the lateral and medial heads originate from the posterior side of the humerus.
A distal triceps tear is a separation of the tendon holding the muscle to the bone at or near the elbow. A complete tear is called a rupture. Ruptures are rare in the general population, as they require substantial force. They typically occur after a sports injury or a traumatic fall. An underlying medical disease or the use of anabolic steroids can increase the risk of a partial or complete triceps tear. The effects of a complete triceps tear can effect many aspects of a patient’s life because they cannot push up with their arms (getting out of chair, bed, or couch).
Symptoms of a triceps tear include:
- Sharp pain when straightening or bending the elbow
- Pain and swelling in the back of the upper arm near the elbow
- A “popping” noise at the time of injury
- A large bulge on the upper arm
Triceps tears are diagnosed through a physical examination, X-rays and sometimes other imaging scans like an MRI scan.
Every triceps tear is different. Some are small in size, chronic in nature and can be treated non-surgically by resting and icing the arm, temporarily splinting or bracing it, and/or physical therapy. Whether a triceps tear requires surgical repair depends on the characteristics of the tear in addition to the patient’s level of activity and goals. Complete tears that cause disability in daily activity may require surgical repair or reconstruction of the tendon.
Distal Triceps Repair Surgery & Recovery
If surgery is recommended, it should be done relatively quickly (i.e., within two to three weeks after the injury). With time, the tendon and muscle can start to scar and shorten, making it harder to fix the problem.
Surgery involves reattaching the ruptured tendon to the ulna bone of the forearm with drill holes or bone anchors. The recovery from triceps repair depends on the nature and severity of the initial injury as well as the patient’s health and age.
After surgery, the arm is immobilized in a splint for approximately two weeks to protect it. Pain medication can be taken to alleviate discomfort and the patient may need help eating, bathing, and dressing.
After the splint is removed, a removable brace that allows the elbow to bend should be worn for up to eight weeks. Physical therapy is recommended to regain elbow motion and strength.
During follow-up the appointments, Dr. Romeo performs a physical examination and evaluates X-rays to monitor the healing progress. He also advises when the patient can resume work and other normal activities. After surgery, it can take up to a year to recover full range of motion and strength.
For more information about repairing a torn triceps tendon, please request an appointment with experienced Chicago orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Anthony Romeo. Call or email our office today to schedule your visit.
Want to know more? Here’s one of Dr. Romeo’s recent medical journal articles about distal triceps tears:
Anthony Romeo, MD
Dr. Anthony Romeo is one of the nation’s leading orthopaedic surgeons specializing in the management and surgical treatment of shoulder and elbow conditions. His state-of-the-art practice employs minimally-invasive arthroscopic techniques to accelerate the recovery process for a range of challenging conditions.