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Understanding and Managing Rotator Cuff Tears and Injuries, Symptoms and Causes

June 5, 2024
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The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that hold the upper arm bone firmly in the shoulder socket, facilitating arm lifting and rotation. Injuries to the rotator cuff, such as tears, can arise suddenly due to falls or repetitive activities, or gradually through tendon degeneration with age. Early treatment is vital to prevent the worsening of symptoms, which include pain, arm weakness, and limited mobility, and to avoid further damage that can lead to increased disability and pain. In this blog, we will explore the various aspects of rotator cuff injuries, from symptoms and causes to diagnosis and treatment options.

What is a Rotator Cuff?

Your rotator cuff consists of the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis muscles and their tendons. These muscles and tendons help hold the upper arm bone (humerus) in the shoulder socket, providing shoulder movement and allowing you to raise and rotate your arm.

Rotator Cuff Tears and Causes

A torn rotator cuff is a common cause of pain and disability among adults. Tears can be minor, only partially tearing through the muscle or tendon, but more serious injuries may result in a full-thickness tear. This is where the tear completely severs the tissue, splitting it into two parts, with no connection between the torn ends.

Rotator cuff injuries can happen suddenly from a fall or jerking motion that stresses your rotator cuff, like falling on an outstretched arm. They may also develop over time due to repetitive activities that strain the rotator cuff tendons or degeneration as we age.

There are 2 main causes of rotator cuff tears – acute injuries and degenerative changes:

Acute Injuries:

  • Falls or trauma that forces you to move your arm into an outstretched position
  • Sudden jerking motions that overextend the shoulder
  • Heavy lifting, especially when done with improper form

Degenerative Tears:

  • Normal wear and tear as we age
  • Repetitive overhead motions from sports like tennis or jobs like painting/construction
  • Bone spurs that rub against the rotator cuff tendons

Risk factors that increase the likelihood of an injury of the rotator cuff may include age, genetic factors, previous shoulder injuries, poor posture, and weakness in the shoulder muscles.

Symptoms of a Rotator Cuff Tear

Common symptoms of a rotator cuff tear include:

  • Shoulder pain and tenderness, especially with overhead activities
  • Dull ache deep in the shoulder at rest
  • Arm weakness, making it difficult to lift the arm
  • Disturbed sleep due to pain and arm weakness
  • Limited range of motion and inability to rotate the arm

More serious cases may also experience crepitus or a crackling sensation when moving the shoulder in certain ways. These symptoms can make routine activities like combing your hair, reaching overhead, or getting dressed difficult and extremely painful. The pain and weakness often worsen over time without treatment.

Symptoms of a Rotator Cuff Tear

Diagnosis and Tests

Diagnosing a rotator cuff tear starts with a physical exam. Your doctor will check for pain with arm motions, weakness, and limited range of motion. Imaging tests are often needed to confirm the diagnosis:

  • X-rays to check for bone spurs or arthritis
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) or ultrasound to visualize soft tissues and identify partial vs complete tears

Your doctor will also ask about your medical history, when the pain started, and how it affects your activities.

Rotator Cuff Treatment Options

Treatment for a rotator cuff tear depends on the severity, size of the tear, your age, and activity level. Your doctor will determine the best treatment for you based on those factors.

Nonsurgical treatment options include:

  • Rest and avoiding overhead activities to reduce pain
  • Ice packs to ease pain and inflammation
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Steroid injections to reduce inflammation
  • Physical therapy exercises to strengthen the shoulder

Recovery is a long road and depends on how well your injuries respond to treatment. Your doctor may recommend surgery if the tear is large, complete, or shows little to no improvement with nonsurgical treatments within 6-12 months.

Surgical treatment options include:

  • Arthroscopic repair for partial tears and smaller full-thickness tears
  • Open surgical rotator cuff repair for larger full-thickness tears
  • Tendon transfer or reverse shoulder replacement for irreparable tears

Recovery after rotator cuff surgery typically involves immobilizing the arm for 4-6 weeks, followed by several months of physical therapy.

Rehabilitation and Recovery

Regardless of whether you need surgery, physical therapy and rehabilitation exercises are essential for recovering strength, flexibility, and function after a rotator cuff injury. Initial therapy will focus on reducing pain and inflammation through stretching and modalities like ice/heat. As pain subsides, you’ll progress to strengthening exercises to rebuild the rotator cuff and surrounding muscles. Your commitment to doing prescribed exercises at home between therapy visits is critical for a full recovery.

Rotator Cuff Injuries Rehabilitation and Recovery

Preventing Future Rotator Cuff Injuries

While it is more common to tear your rotator cuff due to age-related degeneration, there are preventive steps everyone can take:

  • Use proper technique when lifting, pulling, or pushing heavy objects
  • Strengthen your rotator cuff and shoulder blade muscles
  • Take breaks from repetitive overhead activities
  • Maintain good posture to avoid excess strain on the shoulders
  • Ensure your workstation is ergonomically optimized

If you have risk factors like bone spurs or shoulder instability, your doctor may also recommend specific exercises to manage these issues.

Palm Wellness Center Can Help

When left untreated rotator cuff problems can severely impact your mobility, strength, and quality of life. The experienced physicians and physical therapists at Palm Wellness Center have extensive expertise in accurately diagnosing and effectively treating rotator cuff injuries, emphasizing the importance of conservative care to avoid surgery whenever possible. We develop customized treatment plans that focus on reducing pain, regaining strength and range of motion, and preventing future injuries in the affected shoulder.

Don’t let rotator cuff pain and arm weakness limit your activities. Contact Palm Wellness Center at (813) 443-5370 today to schedule a consultation and get on the road to recovery.

FAQ Section

What is the most common type of rotator cuff injury?

Rotator cuff injuries are common. The most common type is a partial thickness tear of the supraspinatus tendon, one of the four rotator cuff tendons. This type of rotator cuff tear can cause pain and is often caused by repetitive overhead motions or degenerative changes from aging.

Can rotator cuff injuries heal on their own?

Yes, if it is a minor tear. However, early treatment can prevent further tearing and allow faster healing. A rotator cuff tear is a common injury and larger, full-thickness tears often require surgical repair.

For those at risk of a rotator cuff injury, minor or partial rotator cuff tears may heal with nonsurgical treatment like rest, anti-inflammatory medication, and physical therapy exercises to restore strength and flexibility. Without early treatment, rotator cuff tears can get worse, resulting in more pain and further loss of shoulder joint strength and mobility. Symptoms may include persistent shoulder pain that worsens with arm movements, arm weakness, and limited range of motion. Proper treatment and rest are essential to preventing a minor tear from progressing to a full-thickness tear. A complete tear cannot heal on its own and will require surgery to repair a torn tendon. and require surgical repair and more downtime to recover.

How long does it typically take to recover from a rotator cuff injury?

Recovery timeframes vary based on the severity of the injury and whether you may need surgery. For less severe injuries like rotator cuff tendinitis, nonsurgical treatment may take 3-6 months of physical therapy to regain full strength and range of motion. Your rehabilitation process may include exercises to do at home to speed your recovery. For surgical repairs of torn rotator cuff tendons, typical recovery is 4-6 months of healing and rehabilitation to return to normal activities.

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