The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons in the shoulder that connects the upper arm and shoulder blade, providing stability and allowing the shoulder to rotate. Because of its function, people who perform repetitive overhead tasks, such as athletes, painters, carpenters and electricians tend to be more susceptible to rotator cuff injuries. Your chances of injuring your rotator cuff increase with age, bringing pain, weakness and inefficient mechanics – all of which may prevent you from performing certain activities and may limit your athletic interests and work performance. The good news is that it’s a treatable injury.
Types of Injuries
The complexity of the rotator cuff leaves it open to several different types of injury. Some of the most common are:
- Tears – This usually happens when the rotator cuff itself has been worn down with age and regular wear and tear. A rotator cuff tear is generally accompanied by pain and weakness in the arm.
- Tendonitis – Tendonitis in the rotator cuff is typically caused by repetitive overhead use—it is a common injury in athletes who swim and play baseball or tennis, but it can also be caused by keeping the shoulder in one position for a long period of time, such as during sleep.
- Frozen shoulder – This rotator cuff injury describes what happens when the upper bone in the arm adheres to the shoulder blade. It causes stiffness and shoulder pain.
- Subacromial bursitis – Bursa are fluid-filled sacs in joints that cushion tendons from bone. Subacromial bursitis happens when these sacs become inflamed, causing pain in the shoulder.
When to Call Your Doctor
It can be difficult to know when to go to the doctor for an injury, especially if the pain isn’t excruciating. If you’ve had a recent shoulder injury and home treatment such as rest and ice isn’t helping, you should call your physician to have it checked. But call your doctor immediately if you are in a lot of pain, can’t move your shoulder as you normally would, are experiencing numbness or tingling, have pale, cold or bluish skin, or if your shoulder appears to be deformed.
Physical Therapy May Be the Answer
If you have a rotator cuff injury, you’ll be glad to know that in many cases physical therapy will help. A custom physical therapy program, which may include targeted strengthening exercises, stretches, manual therapy and reeducation of the muscle, help strengthen the muscles and improve the flexibility around your shoulder.
After examining your shoulder and performing imaging tests, you and your physician will be able to determine the course of action that is best suited for your lifestyle. Because this is a very specific type of injury, it’s a good idea to see a physician who specializes in shoulder injuries, such as a Sports Medicine physician or an orthopedic doctor.
If Surgery Is the Best Option
If your symptoms do not improve and have surgical indications, surgery might be the best treatment option.
Surgeons can often repair the rotator cuff tear arthroscopically. Arthroscopic surgery is performed by inserting a small camera and thin surgical instruments into small incisions around the shoulder area. This is typically an outpatient procedure and the least invasive method to physically repair a damaged rotator cuff. Some surgeons perform the repair in an open fashion. A sling is often used postoperatively for several weeks. Recovery time from this type of surgery can take months.
Following surgery, your doctor will determine where you are in your rehabilitation and recommend physical therapy that coincides to how you’re healing. Typically, most patients do well and have decreased pain and improved motion and strength.
Do you have rotator cuff problems? Is it due to sports or something else?