Your rotator cuff is made up of the muscles and tendons in your shoulder, which connect your upper arm bone (humerus) with your shoulder blade (scapula). The rotator cuff holds the ball of your humerus firmly in your shoulder socket. The term ‘rotator cuff injury’ can mean many different things and includes any type of irritation or damage to your rotator cuff muscles or tendons. About half the time, a rotator cuff injury can heal with the help of physical therapy. But sometimes, surgery is needed to repair the injury.
Rotator cuff pain is one of the most common shoulder problems in adults. If shoulder pain is keeping you from your daily activities, schedule an appointment with an SSM Health Orthopedics shoulder specialist. We can help you identify the cause of your pain and then build a plan to help you heal and strengthen your shoulder, so you can get back to doing the things you love.
Types of Rotator Cuff Injuries
Rotator cuff injuries can be acute (traumatic) or chronic (ongoing) injuries that happen over time. These injuries include:
General Wear and Tear
As you get older or participate in repetitive movement activities, the general wear and tear on your shoulder can cause a rotator cuff injury.
Tendinitis is inflammation of the tendons in your rotator cuff from overuse or overload. Shoulder tendinitis is a common repetitive motion injury for athletes who participate in overhead sports like swimming, tennis and volleyball.
Bursitis is inflammation or irritation of the fluid-filled sac (bursa) between your shoulder joint and rotator cuff tendons.
Tendon Strain or Tear
A partial or full tear can occur in the tendon connecting the muscle to the bone during an abrupt injury or as a result of repetitive motion. Untreated tendonitis can also lead to a tendon tear. A torn rotator cuff causes pain, weakness and inability to move the arm freely in full range of motion. It also tends to be painful when you try to lift and turn your arm during overhead activity.
Shoulder impingement, a common cause of shoulder pain, occurs when the rotator cuff rubs or catches on the bones in the shoulder. Shoulder impingement causes persistent pain as the tendons are injured and swell. Left untreated, shoulder impingement can lead to rotator cuff tears.
Diagnosing a Rotator Cuff Injury
If you have shoulder pain that’s limiting your day-to-day activities, our shoulder specialists will perform a thorough evaluation to determine if you’ve damaged your rotator cuff. This includes understanding your symptoms, a physical exam of your shoulder, and may also include imaging studies, such as an x-ray or MRI.
Rotator Cuff Injury Treatment
The best treatment for a rotator cuff injury depends on what your doctor finds during your evaluation and may include rest, medications, physical therapy, injections in the joint, and/or surgery. Rotator cuff injuries can take several weeks to several months to heal depending on the specific injury. Most rotator cuff tears will not heal on their own, but many times, you can relieve your pain and restore the function of your shoulder without surgery.
Rest and Physical Therapy
Rotator cuff injuries are usually treated first with rest and physical therapy. Your physical therapist will give specific exercises designed to help heal your injury, improve the flexibility of your rotator cuff and shoulder muscles, and provide balanced shoulder muscle strength. They also may recommend using non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDS) or ice packs/heat packs to control the inflammation. Depending on the severity of your injury, physical therapy may be required for several weeks to several months.
Steroid Injections and Surgery
If rest and physical therapy don’t fully heal your injury, your doctor may recommend other treatments, including:
- Steroid injections: Depending on the severity of your pain, your doctor may use a corticosteroid injection to relieve inflammation and pain in your shoulder region.
- Surgery: If you have a large muscle tear in your rotator cuff, you may need surgery to repair the tear. During this type of surgery, doctors also may remove any bone spurs or calcium deposits.
Night Time Shoulder Pain
Many people with rotator cuff injuries have a hard time sleeping, but night time pain can often be relieved with a few simple steps. Try icing your shoulder for 15-20 minutes and taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications, like ibuprofen, before bed to help ease the pain. Many people also find that experimenting with their sleep position can help them get some rest.
If you’re struggling with shoulder pain, schedule an appointment today with an SSM Health shoulder specialist. Our experienced team treats all types of rotator cuff pain and can help you figure out the best treatment option for you. From diagnosis and testing to treatment, therapy and clinical follow-up, our team will work closely with you to create a individualized treatment plan that helps you return to your daily activities as soon as possible. If surgery is necessary, we’ll be with you every step of the way to guide you towards a successful recovery.