A rotator cuff tear is a common injury, especially in sports like baseball or tennis, or in jobs like painting or cleaning windows. It usually happens over time from normal wear and tear, or if you repeat the same arm motion over and over. But it also can happen suddenly if you fall on your arm or lift something heavy.
Your rotator cuff is a group of four muscles and tendons that stabilize your shoulder joint and let you lift and rotate your arms.
There are two kinds of rotator cuff tears. A partial tear is when the tendon that protects the top of your shoulder is frayed or damaged. The other is a complete tear. That’s one that goes all the way through the tendon or pulls the tendon off the bone.
A rotator cuff tear is a common cause of pain and disability among adults. In 2013, almost 2 million people in the United States went to their doctors because of a rotator cuff problem.
A torn rotator cuff will weaken your shoulder. This means that many daily activities, like combing your hair or getting dressed, may become painful and difficult to do.
What causes a rotator cuff tear and how would I know if I have one?
A rotator cuff tear may result from an acute injury, such as a fall, or may be caused by normal age-related wear and tear with degeneration of the tendon.
Typically, you will feel pain in the front of your shoulder that radiates down the side of your arm. It may be present with overhead activities such as lifting or reaching. You may feel pain when you try to sleep on the affected side. You may note weakness of your arm and difficulty with routine activities such as combing your hair or reaching behind your back.
If the tear occurs with injury, you may experience acute pain, a snapping sensation, and immediate weakness of the arm.
What are the symptoms of rotator cuff injury?
Not all rotator cuff injuries cause pain. Some are the result of degenerative conditions, meaning the rotator cuff could be damaged for months or years before symptoms start to appear.
Common rotator cuff injury symptoms include:
- avoiding certain activities because they cause pain
- difficulty achieving full range of shoulder motion
- difficulty sleeping on the affected shoulder
- pain or tenderness when reaching overhead
- pain in the shoulder, especially at night
- progressive weakness of the shoulder
- trouble reaching behind the back
If you’ve been experiencing any of these symptoms for longer than a week or lose function in your arm, see your physiotherapist.
If you have a rotator cuff tear, you’re not alone. It happens to millions of people every year. It’s a common cause of shoulder pain. The right treatment can make you feel better, keep a small injury from getting worse, and help you heal. For many people, physiotherapy (PT) is the answer. It may be all you need to treat an injured rotator cuff.
PT is a way to get back strength and movement after an injury. It includes things like exercise, ice, heat, massage, and equipment to help return your shoulder back to its normal range of motion.
Is PT for Me?
If you think you have a tear, see your physiotherapist. They may send you to someone who treats bones, joints, muscles, and tendons, called an orthopedic doctor. They can talk to you about surgical and nonsurgical options, including PT.
Unless the injury is severe, PT is a typical starting point. Your physiotherapist will ask questions about your life and the things you do. He’ll do some tests to learn more about your pain. The therapist will ask you to raise your arm, move it to the side, or push against something to see what your limits are.
PT helps in lots of ways. One study shows that people who got PT for a rotator cuff tear did just as well as those who had surgery.