Pain in the triceps most often occurs due to triceps tendonitis. Other possible causes include triceps tears and snapping triceps syndrome. Treatments can depend on the cause.

The triceps muscle is located at the back of the upper arm. The main role of the triceps is to extend the elbow.

Overusing or injuring the triceps can cause different types of pain. People can manage some causes of triceps pain at home, while others might benefit from medical treatments such as surgery.

Read on to learn more about the causes of triceps muscle pain. This article also looks at treatment options, preventing triceps muscle pain, contacting a doctor, and more.

A person is stretching their arm behind their back.Share on Pinterest
Guille Faingold/Stocksy United

There are numerous possible causes of triceps muscle pain.

Tendonitis can develop when a person regularly overuses or overloads a joint or muscle. A series of small stresses and tears can cause inflammation in the tendons.

In the triceps, tendonitis is common among athletes ages 30–40 years who throw regularly in their sport.

Triceps tendonitis may feel like pain at the back of the elbow that gets worse when a person extends their arms. Triceps tendonitis may also cause:

According to a 2020 article, triceps tendon injuries are rare. They account for around 1% of all tendon injuries.

Triceps tears or ruptures are rare but typically have links to the use of anabolic steroids.

Triceps tears might occur due to trauma from a fall or pushing too hard against an object that is too heavy. They can range from partial tears to full tears, which completely sever the tendons or muscles from the bone.

Partial tears are those that do not go through the whole tendon. Partial tears can reduce a person’s power when extending the elbow, though a person may still have a good range of motion.

Tendon ruptures may cause:

  • bruising
  • swelling
  • a blood-filled bruise or hematoma
  • reduced ability to extend the elbow
  • changes in the shape of the triceps in cases of complete tears

According to a 2017 review, conditions that also make a triceps rupture more likely include:

Several factors can also increase the risk of these types of injuries:

  • They are more common in people assigned male at birth than people assigned female at birth.
  • They occur mostly in a person’s 30s or 40s.
  • They have close links to weightlifting and American football.

Snapping triceps syndrome is a rare condition that occurs when the triceps dislocates to one or both sides. This causes a snapping pain on either side of the triceps when flexing the arm. It can also lead to numbness and tingling that spreads up the arm.

It occurs more often in younger people than tendon tears. The average age at which snapping triceps syndrome occurs is around 32 years.

Triceps pain due to a tear may be sudden and severe. Pain may be worse during movement, and moving the arm might become difficult.

However, triceps tendonitis may not cause severe or sudden pain for many people. This may be a gradual injury that builds up over time.

This can still cause disruptive damage to the tendon and may require surgery if the pain, daily impact, or damage becomes too severe.

When diagnosing triceps muscle pain, doctors will often ask about a recent injury. They will also physically examine the joint.

To assist with reaching an accurate diagnosis, the doctor may request imaging tests, such as an MRI.

However, doctors often miss triceps tears, according to a 2015 review. This is because they may result from injuries that also cause fractures in the bones nearby, which often explains swelling and pain in the region.

Not much research is available to advise on triceps tendonitis treatments.

However, a 2020 review suggests that the following home remedies and conservative treatments can support recovery in mild cases of tendonitis:

  • resting to avoid further stress on the muscle and tendons
  • applying ice to manage swelling
  • wearing a sling or brace to keep the triceps stable during recovery after a tear
  • taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to reduce inflammation

Conservative management can also treat partial tears up to 75%. However, medical treatments may be necessary for greater tears or if symptoms persist for more than 6 months.

Learn more about muscle soreness and how to treat it.

For those with a full tear or for whom conservative treatments do not relieve partial tear symptoms, doctors may recommend surgery.

Surgery can reattach tendons to bones and repair damage. This sometimes involves repair with stitches or the implant of an anchor to help the tendon stay in place.

Physical therapy after the procedure can help restore strength, flexibility, and function. Physical therapy may also be beneficial before surgery if a person has a partial tear or tendonitis.

A person’s doctor can advise on what treatments they recommend based on the severity of the injury and a person’s symptoms.

The following methods can help people reduce the risk of some causes of muscle pain:

  • performing pre-exercise warmups and gentle stretches
  • taking regular breaks from exercises that involve repeating the same motion
  • getting some training or practice before starting a new sport
  • avoiding overexercising muscles that feel tired

If a person experiences triceps muscle pain, it is best to contact a doctor if:

  • the pain lasts for several weeks
  • the pain is severe
  • other symptoms accompany the pain, such as swelling, limited movement, and hematoma

The doctor can confirm the diagnosis and advise on a suitable treatment plan.

Here are some frequently asked questions about triceps muscle pain and strains.

How do you relieve a sore triceps?

Rest, ice, a supportive sling or brace, and NSAIDs can help relieve mild triceps soreness.

What does a strained triceps feel like?

Strained muscles can cause pain, swelling, spasms, and cramping.

What does triceps tendonitis feel like?

Triceps tendonitis can cause pain, stiffness, swelling, and tenderness. It may feel worse when extending the arm.

Triceps tendonitis and tears can cause triceps muscle pain. Athletes who regularly throw or lift heavy loads, including weightlifters and American football players, have a higher risk of triceps injuries. Snapping triceps might also lead to triceps pain, although this is rare.

Rest, ice, NSAIDs, and a brace or sling can help most triceps tendonitis and partial tears. However, surgery may be necessary to treat complete tears or larger partial tears.

It is best to contact a doctor for advice if a person experiences triceps muscle pain. They can order tests to confirm the diagnosis and advise on a suitable treatment plan.