Understand your tricep pain symptoms, including 4 causes & common questions.
Tricep pain symptoms
Pain in the triceps can interfere with your ability to participate in sports and carry out daily activities. The triceps muscle has three parts that run down the back of the upper arm and join together to form a single tendon attaching to the tip of the elbow. This muscle primarily acts to extend the forearm, so it is involved in multiple sports activities, including tennis, golf, and gymnastics. Fortunately, many causes of tricep pain will resolve with treatment or time.
Common characteristics of tricep pain
Characteristics that can be associated with tricep pain depending on the underlying cause include:
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Causes of tricep pain
The following details may help you better understand your tricep pain symptoms. If your pain worsens or persists, however, you should see a physician for a proper diagnosis.
Pain in the area of the triceps can occur the day after or even a few days after a weightlifting workout or sports activity involving the forearm. This is more likely to occur if you increased the intensity of your workout.
- Acute injury: The triceps tendon is not commonly injured, but a tear can occur after a fall with the arm stretched out or during a sports event. Tearing the triceps tendon often causes pain, swelling, bruising, and a gap in the muscle above the elbow.
- Overuse injury: Repeated use of the triceps during sports or occupational activities can cause an overuse injury of the tendon characterized by inflammation and pain.
Pain in the upper arm can occur due to a pinched nerve in the neck. This condition is typically due to abnormalities of the spinal cord, such as a bulging disc or bony changes associated with arthritis. In addition to arm pain, nerve compression in the neck can cause neck pain and sensory symptoms in the arm, like numbness and tingling. You may also have weakness during forearm extension.
This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.
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
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 tricep are common, often due to minor injury.
Top Symptoms: constant upper arm pain, tricep injury, pain in one tricep, swelling of one arm, upper arm bruise
Symptoms that always occur with bruised tricep: tricep injury, constant upper arm pain
Cellulitis is a bacterial infection of the deep layers of the skin. It can appear anywhere on the body but is most common on the feet, lower legs, and face.
The condition can develop if Staphylococcus bacteria enter broken skin through a cut, scrape, or existing skin infection such as impetigo or eczema.
Most susceptible are those with a weakened immune system, as from corticosteroids or chemotherapy, or with impaired circulation from diabetes or any vascular disease.
Symptoms arise somewhat gradually and include sore, reddened skin.
If not treated, the infection can become severe, form pus, and destroy the tissue around it. In rare cases, the infection can cause blood poisoning or meningitis.
Symptom of severe pain, fever, cold sweats, and fast heartbeat should be seen immediately by a medical provider.
Diagnosis is made through physical examination.
Treatment consists of antibiotics, keeping the wound clean, and sometimes surgery to remove any dead tissue. Cellulitis often recurs, so it is important to treat any underlying conditions and improve the immune system with rest and good nutrition.
Top Symptoms: fever, chills, facial redness, swollen face, face pain
Symptoms that always occur with cellulitis: facial redness, area of skin redness
Urgency: Primary care doctor
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
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Tricep pain treatments and relief
Many causes of pain in the area of the triceps do not require immediate attention. However, surgical management is sometimes necessary for an acute injury to the triceps. You may also require imaging to rule out additional injuries such as an elbow fracture.
Various at-home remedies may help soothe your tricep pain.
- RICE: Try RICE (a mnemonic for rest, ice, compression, and elevation) for pain associated with an acute or overuse injury. Rest and ice the arm and apply compression, such as with an ace bandage. Try to elevate the arm to prevent or reduce swelling.
- Pain medications: NSAIDs such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) can help with pain and swelling associated with an acute or overuse injury. Make sure to follow the directions on the bottle and do not take the medication for more than a week without seeing a medical provider.
- Professional training: If you experience tricep pain during a sport, like tennis, try taking lessons with a professional to improve your form.
- Exercise at a steady pace: To prevent tricep pain after weightlifting workouts, avoid sudden increases in weights or repetitions.
- Use heat: A heating pad can help relieve pain associated with nerve compression in the neck.
When to see a doctor
In some cases, even if emergency care isn't necessary, you may need evaluation and treatment. Make an appointment to see a doctor if you experience the following.
- Pain in both the neck and the back of the upper arm
- Gradual-onset tingling, numbness, or weakness in the arm
- Pain is staying the same or getting worse
- Other limitations: Your pain is interfering with your ability to play sports and/or carry out activities required for daily functioning.
Your medical provider may prescribe one or more of the following treatments, depending on the cause of your tricep pain.
- Physical therapy: This can help strengthen the tricep muscle and tendon.
- Use of a collar: This can stabilize the neck for a short period of time.
- Pain medications: These can help with arm pain and tingling associated with nerve compression.
- Surgery: You may need a referral for surgical management of a pinched nerve or overuse injury of the tendon if other treatments have not been effective.
When it is an emergency
You should seek immediate treatment in the emergency room for the following.
- You can't move your arm after an injury
- Your arm looks deformed: It may have a palpable gap in the muscle just above the elbow.
- You have significant pain, swelling, and/or bruising of the upper arm after falling onto an outstretched hand
- You have sudden-onset arm pain or tingling and/or weakness of forearm extension: This may indicate an injury to the spinal cord due to a herniated disc or other abnormality in the neck.
Questions your doctor may ask about tricep 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?
- Have any of your muscles gotten much smaller (wasted away)?
- Does your pain continue into the night?
Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.
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- Shuttlewood K, Beazley J, Smith CD. Distal Triceps Injuries (Including Snapping Triceps): A Systematic Review of the Literature. World Journal of Orthopedics. 2017;8(6):507-513. NCBI Link
- Foulk DM, Galloway MT. Partial Triceps Disruption: A Case Report. Sports Health. 2011;3(2):175-178. NCBI Link
- Taylor SA, Hannafin JA. Evaluation and Management of Elbow Tendinopathy. Sports Health. 2012;4(5):384-393. NCBI Link