Elbow pain can sideline your workouts and interfere with even the most basic daily tasks. Although uncommon, triceps tendonitis — inflammation of the tendon attached to the back of your elbow — can lead to microtearing of the fibers in your tendon.
Triceps tendonitis is not a common injury. In fact, according to a January 2014 study published in the journal Shoulder & Elbow, distal triceps tendinopathy is the rarest type of tendinopathy that affects the elbow. Because of this, research on this injury is limited.
Read more: How to Fix a Sore Tricep
What Is Triceps Tendonitis?
The triceps muscle straightens your elbow joint. It is used heavily in exercises like push-ups, bench presses and dips. It also assists with shoulder extension — moving your entire arm backward. However, it is rarely injured at this joint.
One of the first symptoms of triceps tendonitis is pain during activities that use elbow extension — pushing a door closed, pressing down with your arms to stand from a chair or sitting up after lying in bed. This condition may cause swelling and is often painful to the touch. You might also notice weakness in this muscle.
Initially, treatment for triceps tendonitis includes resting from aggravating activities — including exercises that target this muscle. Other interventions for tendonitis include applying ice for up to 20 minutes several times per day for the first 72 hours after injury, and using of over-the-counter medications to reduce pain and inflammation, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Read more: Elbow Pain After Bench Presses
Move, Stretch and Strengthen
Tendonitis can lead to stiffness in the affected joint. Range of motion exercises help restore full movement in your elbow. Perform this exercise in a pain-free range:
- Sit up straight, squeezing your shoulder blades down and together.
- Rotate your forearms into a palm-up position.
- Bend your elbows as far as possible, without pain. This movement will stretch your triceps tendons.
- Hold for one to two seconds; then slowly straighten your elbows as far as possible.
- Perform 10 repetitions.
- Repeat this exercise with your thumbs pointed toward the ceiling; then again with your forearms in a palm-down position.
Once you have full, pain-free movement in your elbow, stretch the triceps tendon by applying pressure with your opposite hand.
- Reach overhead with your injured arm.
- Bend your elbow, allowing your hand to drop behind your head.
- Grab your elbow with the opposite hand and gently pull it farther behind your head. Stop when you feel a pull along the back of your upper arm.
- Hold for 20 to 30 seconds, and repeat three times.
Isometric strengthening exercises produce tension in your injured tendon without allowing your elbow joint to move.
- Bend your elbow to approximately 90 degrees with your thumb pointed toward the ceiling.
- Place your opposite hand under your forearm, near your wrist joint.
- Press down with your injured arm while meeting the pressure with the opposite hand — your elbow angle should not change.
- Hold for two to three seconds; then relax.
- Perform 10 repetitions, working up to three sets in a row.
Progress Your Resistance
Once you are able to perform isometric exercises without pain, strengthen your triceps with added resistance. Begin with a 1- or 2-pound dumbbell. Repeat each exercise 10 times, working up to three sets in a row before increasing the weight of your dumbbell.
Move 1: Overhead Elbow Extension
Perform the overhead elbow extension in a seated position for added stability.
- Holding the dumbbell on your affected side, reach up and overhead. Bend your elbow until the dumbbell is resting behind your head.
- Place your opposite hand on the back of your elbow for support.
- Keeping your upper arm still, straighten your elbow, lifting the dumbbell toward the ceiling.
- Hold at the top for one to two seconds; then slowly lower back down.
- Repeat 10 times, working up to three sets in a row.
Move 2: Triceps Kickback
The triceps kickback is an effective alternative to the overhead press — particularly if you have limited shoulder range of motion.
- Stand with your feet staggered. Keeping your back flat, hinge at your hips and place your unaffected hand on a table for support.
- With your affected elbow bent to 90 degrees, raise your shoulder backward until your upper arm is parallel to the floor.
- Keeping your upper arm stationary, straighten your elbow fully. Hold for one to two seconds; then lower back down.
Move 3: Resistance Band Press
Use a resistance band to add variety to your elbow strengthening exercises. Advance to thicker bands as your strength improves.
- Secure one end of the band around shoulder-height. Hold the opposite end of the band in your hand on the affected side.
- Bend your elbow and keep it tucked against the side of your body throughout the movement.
- Straighten your elbow against the resistance of the band.
- Hold for one to two seconds; then slowly allow your elbow to bend back up.
Eccentrics and Compound Exercises
Eccentric exercises emphasize the lengthening phase of a movement, and are sometimes referred to as "negatives." Although the effect of eccentrics on triceps tendinitis has not been specifically studied, according to an October 2015 study published in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, eccentric training is effective in the treatment of Achilles and patellar tendinopathies.
- Assume the same starting position used in the overhead elbow extension.
- Use the opposite hand to fully straighten your elbow overhead — do not use your injured arm to assist with this movement.
- Let go with the opposite hand, and slowly lower the dumbbell down to the starting position.
Once you are able to perform isolated elbow extension exercises without pain, slowly return to compound exercises, such as push-ups, dips and bench presses.
Modify these exercises at the beginning. For example, perform push-ups on your knees rather than on your toes, and use your lower extremities to support some of your body weight with dips. Use dumbbells for bench presses, gradually progressing to barbell exercises as your strength improves.
- Shoulder & Elbow: "Tendinopathies Around the Elbow Part 2: Medial Elbow, Distal Biceps and Triceps Tendinopathies"
- Mayo Clinic: "Tendinitis"
- Ipswich Hospital: "Elbow Exercises"
- Summit Medical Group: "Triceps Tendon Injury Exercises"
- Infomed: "Flexibility (Triceps)"
- Government of Alberta: "Triceps Tendinitis: Exercises"
- Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy: "Eccentric or Concentric Exercises for the Treatment of Tendinopathies?"
- ExRx.net: "Triceps Brachii"
- "The Percussionists' Guide to Injury Treatment and Prevention"; Darin Workman; 2006