What is triceps tendonitis?
The triceps tendon is a tough, flexible tissue that attaches the triceps muscle at the back of the upper arm to the elbow bone. It helps triceps muscles to straighten your arm.
Repeated strain on a tendon can cause tiny micro-tears in the tissue. The body will try to heal these tears, but sometimes they are made faster than the body can fix them. As the number of tears increases, they can cause pain from inflammation, weaken the tendon, and cause larger tears in the tissue.
Repeatedly extending or hyperextending the arm — as you might do when hammering, throwing a baseball, boxing, or doing gymnastics — can stress the triceps tendon. This can cause pain in the back of the elbow. When this happens, the tendon will swell and sometimes also become red. As the tendonitis gets worse, the outside of the tendon, called a sheath, can thicken or get bigger, and get darker red in color. Most of the time, when the tendon turns a darker shade of red, it is because of the inflammation in the tendon. Sometimes tendonitis can cause the tendon to tear.
Most of the time, triceps tendonitis is caused over time by overuse. Triceps tendonitis can also occur with shoulder and elbow problems that have caused damage to the area, such as arthritis, muscle tears, or dislocation.
Often, triceps tendonitis can get better with simple rest. At times, medicine may be needed to help the pain get better.
Pain and weakness in the triceps, shoulders, or elbows are the most common symptoms of triceps tendonitis. Pain will often get worse when trying to use the triceps, such as in pushing or pulling motions with the arm. Other symptoms may include:
- Achiness in the shoulder, triceps, or elbow
- Snapping sounds or sensations in the shoulder or elbow
- Occasional swelling at the back of the elbow
Triceps tendonitis is often caused by activities that require forcefully extending the elbow. Examples include throwing a baseball, hammering, bench presses, and gymnastics. These activities can cause more strain if you quickly increase how hard or how often you do them. Having tight arm muscles or some arm muscles are a lot stronger than others can also increase stress on the triceps tendon. Most of these risks can be reduced with proper warming up and training.
Tendonitis can also be related to a disease such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, or infection.
Diagnosis and Tests
To diagnose triceps tendonitis, your doctor will perform a physical exam. During this exam, your doctor may press on the area where the tendons attach to the elbow or triceps to see if they can feel any hardness or swelling. Your doctor may also ask you to move your arm or elbow to assess your range of motion. You may also be asked to perform simple shoulder or elbow exercises that will help your doctor figure out how strong your triceps, shoulder, and elbow are.
Your doctor may also ask you a few questions about your symptoms, such as:
- When the symptoms started
- If they are getting worse
- Is the pain accompanied by swelling, buckling, locking, or snapping
- If your symptoms have gotten in the way of, or prevented, you from doing regular activities such as walking, running, standing, or using stairs
- If you have you tried any self-care, or home treatments
If your doctor finds that you have the symptoms of triceps tendonitis, they may perform an x-ray, ultrasound, or MRI to confirm the diagnosis.
Treatments & Prevention
Treatment will usually focus on relieving the pain and preventing further injury.
Your doctor will help you determine a treatment plan for your triceps tendonitis. If your case is mild, you may be able to heal your case with rest, ice, and over-the-counter pain medicine.
If your case is more severe, your doctor may recommend steroid injections or physical therapy. In the most severe cases, or if your case does not get better with other treatments, your doctor may recommend surgery.
Regardless of treatment method, most patients with triceps tendonitis heal well with proper care.