The rotator cuff refers to a group of four muscles that come together as tendons to cover (cuff) the shoulder joint. They keep the arm bone stabilized and attached to the shoulder socket and allow for smooth, fluid rotational movement.
According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, roughly two million people in the U.S. visit a doctor for rotator cuff problems each year.
How Do Rotator Cuff Injuries Happen?
There are many ways a rotator cuff injury can happen. People who frequently experience torn rotator cuff have jobs where they are constantly performing overhead motions. These jobs include painters, carpenters, baseball players, tennis players, warehouse or retail workers, etc.
Sometimes rotator cuff injuries are the result of a single traumatic incident, such as a workplace accident, car wreck or fall. You may feel acute pain, a snapping sensation, and sudden weakness in your arm. If this is the case, it is imperative for you to get medical care quickly.
A rotator cuff tear can happen in conjunction with other injuries such as breaking a collarbone, dislocating a shoulder, landing on an outstretched arm, lifting something too heavy or with a sudden jerk.
Risk factors for injuring a rotator cuff also include aging, certain sports, construction jobs, family history, bone spurs, and chronic degeneration in the dominant arm. Repeated microtrauma can occur over several weeks, months or years.
Torn Rotator Cuff Symptoms
Common symptoms of a rotator cuff tear include:
- Pain radiating from the front of the shoulder down the side of the arm
- A dull ache deep in the shoulder
- Difficulty sleeping
- Cannot reach up over the head or behind the back
- Weakness in the arm
- Popping sensations
- Cracking sensations (crepitus)
- Shoulder locking into place
- Bursitis (inflammation of the bursa sac)
A small or partial rotator cuff tear may only cause mild should pain and weakness while raising your arm. A moderate tear is typically painful and you will have difficulty moving your arm and sleeping. Full rotator cuff tears can feature either severe or mild pain — what is important is the feeling of weakness and the inability to move your elbow away from your body.
Can a rotator cuff injury get worse?
Yes. A torn rotator cuff can get larger over time with repetitive use or re-injury. If you know you have a shoulder tear, increased pain and decreased strength likely means the tear is growing worse.
Can a Rotator Cuff Tear Heal Naturally?
In a best-case scenario, rest, ice, and physical therapy may be all that’s needed to recover from rotator cuff injury. About half of all people with rotator cuff injuries experienced improved symptoms with non-surgical treatments.
- Rest the shoulder - Avoid any activities, heavy lifting or movements that cause pain. However, don’t keep the arm completely immobilized, as this can result in what’s known as “frozen shoulder.”
- Apply heat and ice - Ice helps reduce inflammation. Use an ice pack 15-20 minutes every three to four hours. If the pain and inflammation subside after a few days, heating pads can help relax the muscles.
- Take pain relievers - Over-the-counter pain relievers can help — talk to your doctor about which is best for you to use.
- Strengthening exercises - Simple, regular exercises keep the shoulder joint and muscles from tensing up and restore movement.
However, if the tear is sudden, large or complete, surgery may be required. Without the proper treatment, you could experience a permanent loss of motion and weakness.
Preparing for an Appointment
Before your appointment with a doctor or surgeon, try to write out the answers to the following questions so you are prepared:
- Where is the pain located?
- How severe is your pain?
- When did you start experiencing shoulder pain?
- What kind of movements and activities aggravate or relieve your pain?
- Have you ever injured your shoulder before?
- Are you experiencing any other symptoms in addition to shoulder pain (weakness, numbness, etc.)?
- Does the pain travel down your arm below the elbow?
- Is the shoulder pain associated with any neck pain?
- Does your job or hobby worsen your shoulder pain?
Rotator Cuff Tear Treatment
If you suspect an injury, it’s important to visit your doctor as soon as possible. If the injury is severe, they may refer you to an orthopedic surgeon for evaluation. Be sure to bring any records and test images with you to your appointments.
During the physical exam, the physician will put pressure on different parts of the should, move the arm into different positions, and test the muscle strength in your shoulder and arms.
The doctor may also recommend imaging tests such as X-rays, an ultrasound or an MRI. A rotator cuff tear won’t show up on an X-ray. This test is more to make sure there aren’t bone spurs, arthritis or other factors contributing to the pain. Ultrasounds and MRIs use sound waves and radio waves to create highly details images of the soft tissue.
In addition to conservative treatments like rest and ice, a doctor may recommend steroid injections if the pain is interfering with normal activities like sleep. These shots are temporarily helpful but should be used sparingly since they can weaken the tendon.
Physical therapy is usually recommended to treat shoulder injuries. Such exercises help restore dexterity and strength in your shoulder. It is also important to continue physical therapy after rotator cuff surgery to help the injured area heal. Rehabilitation may take several months to restore strength in the arm.
Surgery may be recommended if you’re experiencing persistent pain and weakness over several months despite medication and therapy. There are several different kinds of rotator cuff surgeries depending on where the injury occurred in the shoulder and how severe it is:
- Arthroscopic Tendon Repair - Surgeons insert a small camera and tools through an incision to reattach the torn tendon to the bone.
- Débridement - A partial tear that may require trimming or smoothing.
- Open Tendon Repair - In some cases, a surgeon may prefer to work with a larger incision to reattach the damaged tendon to the bone. The recovery time is similar to the one following an arthroscopic tendon repair but may cause more discomfort.
- Shoulder Replacement - A severe rotator cuff injury may require replacing the shoulder. The procedure (reverse shoulder arthroplasty) installs a metal joint onto the shoulder blade and a socket onto the arm bone to facilitate stability and smooth movement.
- Tendon Transfer - Sometimes a torn tendon is too damaged to be repaired and reattached, in which case the surgeon will use a nearby tendon as a replacement.
Rotator Cuff Injury Lawyer - Gary Martin Hays & Associates
We help people who have been injured through no fault of their own. Whether your injury happened on the job, because of a crash or due to fall, our Atlanta personal injury lawyers can help.
Rotator cuff treatment and surgery can be expensive and the healing process can take months. The sooner you can get treatment, the sooner you can get back to normal.
Our workers’ compensation and car accident attorneys can help you find local physicians and physical therapists to treat your shoulder injury. While you heal, our team acts as a buffer between you and the insurance company.
A rotator cuff injury can severely impact your life, physically, emotionally, and financially. You may feel pressured to go back to work before you’re ready or the insurance company is ignoring your calls.
Know your rights and get just compensation for your injuries by contacting Gary Martin Hays & Associates today.