What Is Triceps Tendonitis?

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Tendons are connective tissue that attach muscles to bones, enabling your joints to move. Triceps tendonitis is a condition caused by inflammation of the tendon that runs from the back of the arm (your triceps) to the elbow bone. While it doesn't occur very often, having this condition can make daily activities quite painful.

This article discusses the causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of triceps tendonitis.

Woman doing triceps dips

Pekic / Getty Images

Causes

Triceps tendonitis is not very common, but when it does occur, it's typically caused by overusing your triceps muscle.

Your triceps muscle runs along the back of your upper arm and is attached to the point of your elbow by a tendon. This muscle straightens your elbow. Tendonitis typically develops from repeatedly straightening your elbow against resistance. This causes tiny tears in the tendon tissue, which leads to inflammation.

Triceps tendonitis commonly occurs from repetitive manual labor tasks such as hammering, or sports activities such as throwing a ball, doing gymnastics, or boxing.

Other big culprits for the development of tendonitis are exercises that target your triceps muscle, including kickbacks, dips, push-ups, and bench presses. For this reason, triceps tendonitis is sometimes called "weightlifter's elbow."

Symptoms

Tendonitis causes inflammation, which leads to a series of chemical reactions in the area of your injury. There are five main symptoms of inflammation: redness, warmth, swelling, pain, and loss of function. With triceps tendonitis, you're most likely to experience pain at the back of your elbow, along with stiffness. You might also feel "weak" when you try to use your affected arm.

Tendonitis typically causes more pain with movement than at rest. Pain can occur when you're straightening your elbow, which puts tension through your triceps, or when you're bending your elbow, which stretches your triceps tendon.

Diagnosis

Tendonitis can usually be diagnosed by your healthcare provider with a series of questions and a physical exam. Your healthcare provider will likely ask you to describe your pain and the activities that make it better or worse. Your elbow will be assessed for movement issues, swelling, or deformities that could indicate a worse injury, such as a tendon tear.

In some cases, your healthcare provider might order X-rays or other imaging, such as magnetic resonance imagine (MRI), to assess for a bone fracture or more extensive damage to your tendon.

When To See a Healthcare Provider

If you've tried home remedies for a few days and still have significant elbow pain, see a healthcare provider for your triceps tendonitis. If you notice a lump in the back of your arm or are unable to move your elbow without severe pain, seek immediate medical attention to rule out a tendon tear.

Treatment

There are several types of treatments for triceps tendonitis, including home remedies, physical therapy, and medications.

Home Remedies

Triceps tendonitis can sometimes be treated at home—especially if you address your symptoms early on. Follow these tips:

  • Rest: This doesn't mean you need to lay on the couch and do nothing. Rest your triceps tendon by avoiding the activities that cause you pain for at least a few days.
  • Ice: Apply ice to your triceps tendon for 15 to 20 minutes, two to three times per day. You can also massage the sore area with an ice cube for several minutes.
  • Range of motion exercises: Decrease stiffness in your elbow with gentle range of motion exercises. Slowly bend and straighten your elbow in a pain-free range, 10 times in a row. Repeat several times per day.

Physical Therapy

Physical therapists use a variety of skills and tools when treating tendonitis, including:

  • Modalities: Physical therapy modalities are used to decrease pain, inflammation, and stiffness. Examples include ultrasound, electrical stimulation, and light therapy.
  • Manual therapy: Manual techniques for tendonitis include soft tissue massage, friction massage, stretching, and joint mobilization.
  • Exercise: Physical therapy includes stretching and strengthening exercises that target your triceps muscle and any other muscle weakness that might have contributed to your condition.
  • Activity modification: Your therapist will look at the activities that led to your tendonitis and make sure you're using the correct form and proper body mechanics. In some cases, a physical therapist can make on-site changes to your work environment to help prevent further injury.

Medications

There are a variety of medications that can be used to treat triceps tendonitis:

  • NSAIDs: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications are often used to treat tendonitis. Many are available over-the-counter, including Aleve (naproxen), Bayer (aspirin), and Advil (ibuprofen). These medications can also be prescribed in higher doses by your healthcare provider.
  • Pain-relievers: Additional over-the-counter medications such as Tylenol (acetaminophen) can help decrease pain caused by tendonitis.
  • Oral steroids: These medications might be prescribed for short-term use to decrease inflammation if over-the-counter medications are not effective in treating your symptoms. Long-term use of oral steroids can actually cause more damage to your tendons.
  • Corticosteroid injections: Tendonitis is frequently treated with an injection of steroid medication to decrease inflammation. However, having multiple injections in the same area can eventually cause tendons to become weaker.
  • Platelet-rich plasma (PRP): PRP is made by taking a small amount of your blood and separating out the platelets (cells that release growth factors to promote healing). This platelet-rich liquid is then injected into your tendon. PRP is controversial since some studies have supported its use whereas others have not. While PRP may show some promise, because of the ambiguity in the clinical data, your insurance may not cover PRP treatments.

Prevention

While there's no guarantee that you won't ever have triceps tendonitis, there are several steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing this condition.

  • Warm-up: Spend a few minutes doing low-intensity warm-up activities such as arm circles (holding your arms straight out at your sides and making small rotations in both directions) to increase blood flow before you exercise or play sports.
  • Stretch it out: Perform tricep stretches after your warm-up. Lift your arm overhead and rest your hand on the base of your neck. Gently pull your elbow backward with the opposite hand until you feel a pull (but not pain) along your triceps. Hold for 30 seconds.
  • Progress slowly and use proper form: If you're new to exercising, consult a personal trainer to check your form and make exercise recommendations. Increase your weights slowly as your strength improves.
  • Respect your pain: If something hurts, stop what you're doing. "No pain, no gain" is a fast-track to tendonitis and other injuries.

Summary

Triceps tendonitis is caused by inflammation in the tendon at the back of your elbow. It is most often caused by overuse of the triceps muscles, which is why it's especially common in weightlifters, gymnasts, and boxers. This condition can cause pain, swelling, and loss of function.

Treatments include home remedies, physical therapy, and medications. Overall, prevention is key; taking care to warm up before a workout, stretch, and use proper form can make a big difference in avoiding triceps tendonitis.

A Word From Verywell

Dealing with triceps tendonitis can be frustrating, especially when you need to take a break from your normal activities. However, temporarily side-lining your activities to address your symptoms can keep you from more serious injury—and additional time away from the gym or work. It's better to treat a small injury than wear yourself down and experience a big injury.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long does triceps tendonitis last?

    Triceps tendonitis symptoms can decrease within a few days of stopping the activity that caused your condition. However, full recovery can take several months.

  • What are some exercises that can cause triceps tendonitis?

    Tendonitis can occur from exercises that target your triceps, such as kickbacks, push-ups, dips, and bench presses.

  • What does triceps tendonitis feel like?

    Triceps tendonitis causes pain at the back of the elbow that increases with movement.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Orthopedic & Spine Center. Triceps tendonitis or weightlifter's elbow.

  2. Harvard Health Publishing. Tendonitis.

  3. Prall J, Ross M. The management of work-related musculoskeletal injuries in an occupational health setting: the role of the physical therapistJ Exerc Rehabil. 2019;15(2): doi:10.12965%2Fjer.1836636.318

  4. Aurora Health Care. Tendonitis symptoms & treatment.

  5. Spoendlin J, Meier C, Jick SS, Meier CR. Oral and inhaled glucocorticoid use and risk of Achilles or biceps tendon rupture: a population-based case-control studyAnn Med. 2015;47(6):492-498. doi:10.3109/07853890.2015.1074272

  6. NYU Langone Health. Therapeutic injections for bursitis & tendinitis in adults.

By Aubrey Bailey, PT, DPT, CHT
Aubrey Bailey is a physical therapist and professor of anatomy and physiology with over a decade of experience providing in-person and online education for medical personnel and the general public, specializing in the areas of orthopedic injury, neurologic diseases, developmental disorders, and healthy living.