Understand your bicep pain symptoms with Buoy, including 4 causes and common questions concerning your bicep pain.
Symptoms of bicep pain
Pain located between your shoulder and elbow can be labeled as bicep pain. The discomfort can sometimes radiate into your back and make it difficult to bend your elbow or flex those sweet muscles you've been working on. While typically not a major cause for concern, bicep pain can be bothersome and limit your ability to exercise, work, or get things done around the house.
Common characteristics and other symptoms of bicep pain
Bicep pain can be described by:
- Sharp pain in the arm
- Snapping sounds upon movement
- Muscle cramps
- Elbow tenderness
- Shoulder and elbow weakness
Bicep structure and function
The bicep is a muscle located on the front portion of the upper arm. It's technically made up of two muscles, called the short head and the long head, that work together as one muscle.
Like most muscles, the bicep is attached to your bones with tendons. The bicep is one of the busiest muscles in the body, helping you complete a wide range of tasks throughout the day. If any of the included muscles or tendons are damaged, bicep pain will likely result.
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Causes of bicep pain
Bicep pain is usually caused by an injury from exercising or playing sports. However, there are other causes to consider. The following sections may give you a better idea of what is behind your symptoms. See a physician for bicep pain that worsens or persists.
Traumatic causes of bicep pain
The bicep muscles can tear from a shoulder or elbow injury. Sports-related injuries are common, especially if you have to repeat a specific movement over and over, like throwing a football. Exerting the bicep too much while strength training can also lead to pain.
You don't need to be an overworked athlete to damage your bicep. Lifting a heavy box of books can traumatize the area or an awkward fall can tear a tendon, for example.
Medical causes of bicep pain
Joint pain can occasionally translate to bicep pain. Pain in the bicep can be a concerning sign for people with heart conditions. People with anxiety disorders can also experience bicep pain if the muscles are clenched.
Steroid use falls under other causes of bicep pain. If needles are infected or shared, the bicep muscle itself can become infected. This is rare but possible.
This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.
Brachial plexopathy (shoulder nerve issue)
The brachial plexus is a web of nerves between the neck and shoulder, connecting the spinal cord nerves to the arm. There is one web on each side of the neck. Any injury that forces the shoulder to stretch down, and the neck to stretch up and away, can damage these nerves and cause brachial plexopathy.
Sports injuries and car accidents are often involved. Inflammation, tumors, and radiation treatment can also damage the brachial plexus.
Milder symptoms include numbness and weakness in the arm, with a shocklike stinging or burning sensation. A more severe injury can cause paralysis and loss of feeling in the arm, with pain in some parts of the arm, hand, and shoulder.
These symptoms should be seen by a medical provider since permanent damage can result if the injuries are not treated.
Diagnosis is made through electromyography (EMG) testing, CT scan, MRI, and sometimes angiogram.
Treatment usually involves rest and physical therapy. Surgery may be necessary to remove scar tissue or repair the damaged nerves.
Top Symptoms: pain in one arm, shoulder pain that shoots to the arm, arm weakness, numbness in one arm, shoulder pain
Symptoms that never occur with brachial plexopathy (shoulder nerve issue): pain in the front middle part of the neck
Urgency: Primary care doctor
A bruise is the damage of the blood vessels that return blood to the heart (the capillaries and veins), which causes pooling of the blood. This explains the blue/purple color of most bruises. Bruises of the bicep are common due to minor injuries.
Top Symptoms: constant upper arm pain, recent bicep injury, pain in one bicep, swelling of one arm, upper arm bruise
Symptoms that always occur with bicep bruise: recent bicep injury, constant upper arm pain
Upper arm bone infection (osteomyelitis)
Osteomyelitis of the upper arm is a bacterial or fungal infection of the bone, typically caused by Staph Aureus (40-50% of the time). It is difficult to diagnose as the infection can come from a break in the skin at the area or anywhere else in the body that spreads by blood.
Top Symptoms: moderate fever, constant upper arm pain, spontaneous upper arm pain, warm red upper arm swelling, painful surgical site
Symptoms that always occur with upper arm bone infection (osteomyelitis): constant upper arm pain, spontaneous upper arm pain
Urgency: Hospital emergency room
Repetitive strain injury of the upper arm
Repetitive strain injury of the upper arm is caused by consistent repetitive use.
Top Symptoms: upper arm pain from overuse, upper arm weakness, upper arm numbness
Symptoms that always occur with repetitive strain injury of the upper arm: upper arm pain from overuse
Symptoms that never occur with repetitive strain injury of the upper arm: upper arm injury, severe upper arm pain
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Bicep pain treatments and relief
Bicep pain can slow you down, but the discomfort can be managed with the following treatments. Make sure to review the prevention section if bicep pain is common for you.
The following treatment options can likely provide some relief at home.
- Ice packs: Use cold packs or ice to reduce any swelling. Only leave ice on the area for 20 minutes at a time.
- Medications: NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin), can help minimize discomfort. Just take care to not overwork the muscle, even if it's feeling better, when taking pain medication.
- Rest: One of the best ways to alleviate bicep pain is resting the affected arm as much as possible.
When to see a doctor
Bicep pain usually goes away with rest and time. However, some cases can be persistent and even dangerous. Here are some signs that it's time to schedule an appointment with your doctor regarding bicep pain.
- Pain that doesn't improve over several weeks
- Obvious deformity in the bicep area
- Open or infected wounds
- Experiencing other signs of heart distress: Such as dizziness or shortness of breath
When it is an emergency
In addition to what is detailed above, you should seek immediate treatment for:
- Chest pain and shortness of breath: Especially if accompanied by arm or bicep pain, nausea and vomiting, and sweating
- You cannot move your arm at all
- Your pain becomes severe or debilitating
- You have a fever or signs of infection
Bicep pain may be largely preventable if you keep the following in mind.
- Take things slowly when doing physical activities: If completing strength training, only move up in weight when you are truly ready.
- Practice proper posture when performing exercises or playing sports: Proper form will not only help you perform better but can also reduce your chances of injury.
- Try avoiding or at least changing any physical activity that may trigger bicep pain
FAQs about bicep pain
What does it feel like to tear your bicep?
The bicep actually consists of two muscle groups. If you tear the long head of the biceps, you may experience shoulder pain. If you are lifting weights at the same time your arm may "give out" and drop whatever load it is carrying. If you tear the short head of the biceps, you may experience acute elbow pain followed by weakness. This will typically occur after a relatively forceful contraction. After a biceps tear, the muscle may look swollen, classically referred to as a "Popeye" deformity named after the cartoon character whose biceps bulged after eating spinach.
Why do I have sudden bicep pain for no reason?
Sudden biceps pain may be caused by injury to the tendon, underlying bone, or a tear of muscle fibers. Sudden, sharp pain is abnormal while weightlifting and should be evaluated. People who tear their bicep tendon will also report hearing a popping sound. Unprovoked bicep pain is uncommon and can be caused by cramps.
What are the symptoms of bicep tendonitis?
Classically, people with biceps tendonitis will experience pain in the front of the shoulder that's worse at night. The pain may increase with physical activities such as pulling, reaching overhead repetitively, and lifting. Usually, tendinopathy is chronic and symptoms develop slowly over time. If it becomes worse, it may cause a tendon rupture, in which the ability of the muscle to lift its attached structure is completely lost.
How long does it take to recover from a bicep strain?
Bicep strain is a common exercise-related injury that usually requires a few days for recovery. Chronic tendinopathy may take four to eight weeks to recover, depending on how much you rest. Biceps tendonitis and muscle rupture may also have a significant threat of prolonged limitation if untreated. Biceps muscle tears may require surgery, and emergency care is necessary for individuals requiring a high degree of functionality (professional weightlifters, construction workers, etc.)
How long does it take to for a torn bicep to heal?
After suffering a bicep tear, common treatments include ice, compression, and rest. Usually, a few weeks time is sufficient to return to function unless surgery is indicated. If you undergo surgery, recovery is often one to five weeks long.
Questions your doctor may ask about bicep pain
- Did you recently experience an injury to the upper arm area?
- Do you have any idea what may have caused your upper arm pain?
- Does your pain continue into the night?
- Have any of your muscles gotten much smaller (wasted away)?
Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.
I was attending a yoga class and the teacher said to lie on your tummy and spread your arms out palms down. Then said to gently roll to the left then right, putting pressure on each shoulder and upper arm. I guess I exerted too much pressure on my left arm because since that day I've had cramping and sharp pain from my elbow to my shoulder. It’s been 2 weeks now and it still hurts like crazy. I have to stop using it I guess. I can’t even lift a can of 12 oz soup. That particular movement really shows how weak I am in the arm. Warm feels good but it says cold is better?????? I’m just gonna take Advil and rest it.
- Biceps Tendinitis. American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons: OrthoInfo. Reviewed Feb. 2016. OrthoInfo Link
- Biundo JJ. Tendinitis and Tenosynovitis. Merck Manual Consumer Version. Updated April 2018. Merck Manuals Consumer Version Link
- Heart Attack and Stroke Symptoms. American Heart Association. AHA Link
- Chronic Pain. Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Updated April 2016. ADAA Link
- Churgay CA. Diagnosis and Treatment of Biceps Tendinitis and Tendinosis. Am Fam Physician. 2009 Sep 1;80(5):470-476. AAFP Link