Distal Triceps Tear


A distal triceps tear is a separation of the tendon holding the muscle to the bone at or near the elbow. When a complete detachment occurs, it is called a rupture and is usually followed by a popping sound at the time of injury. Although rare, a rupture occurs after a traumatic fall or injury. Patients with underlying medical conditions or who use anabolic steroids have an increased risk of a distal triceps tear.  A rupture will prevent a patient from pushing up with their arms, so daily activities like getting out of bed can be challenging. Other symptoms may include:

  • Severe pain when bending or straightening the elbow
  • Swelling in the back of the upper arm near the elbow
  • Bulging in the upper part of the arm
Elbow diagram and anatomy

Triceps Anatomy

The triceps is a muscle on the back of the upper arm. It begins at the shoulder and attaches to a bone in the forearm called the ulna. The triceps are comprised of three components: the long head, the lateral head, and the medial head. The triceps muscle helps straighten and stabilize the elbow.


Dr. Stowell will diagnose your triceps tear through a physical examination. He may also order imaging like X-rays and an MRI. Because every triceps tear is different, Dr. Stowell will assess whether surgical repair is necessary. If your tear is small and chronic in nature, non-surgical treatment may work well by icing the arm, temporarily splinting or bracing it, and/or with a physical therapy program. 

Surgery for distal triceps tendon tear repair is ideal during the first 2 to 3 weeks after injury. After this time, restoring arm function with surgery is more challenging because the tendon and muscle begin to scar and shorten. Late surgical treatment options exist but are more complicated and generally less successful. Dr. Stowell will discuss the best treatment options for your specific needs.

If surgery is recommended, Dr. Stowell will reattach your ruptured tendon to the ulna bone of the forearm with drill holes or bone anchors. After surgery, your arm will be immobilized in a splint for a short period of time. Dr. Stowell may prescribe over-the-counter pain medication to reduce swelling and relieve pain. Recovery from triceps repair depends on the nature and severity of your injury as well as your age and health. After surgery, it can take up to a year to regain full range of motion and strength in your elbow. Your strict adherence to Dr. Stowell’s rehabilitation program will also be critical to your success in returning to normal activities that you enjoy.

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