Chances are you have heard about a Major League Baseball pitcher, an NFL quarterback, or some other big-name professional athlete suffering a rotator cuff injury in their shoulder. Though did you know that roughly two to four million people in the United States suffer some type of rotator cuff shoulder injury each year.
Some individuals with minor rotator cuff injuries and low-impact careers can potentially recover with rest and diligent physical therapy. Though more significant rotator cuff injuries, such as complete rotator cuff tears, will likely require surgical repair. Especially if you are an avid athlete or you have a job that calls for a lot of upper body labor.
If you’ve recently suffered a shoulder injury and you are worried that it might be the rotator cuff, or you’ve been experiencing discomfort similar to a rotator cuff injury, the following information will help you better understand your options. This involves asking and answering some key questions.
What Is The Rotator Cuff?
The human shoulder is a complex, compound joint with several important structures that allow you to move your arm fluidly as well as transfer force between the torso and the arms. The rotator cuff is one of the most important structures in the shoulder. It is comprised of four muscles and tendons that form a covering around the head of the humerus bone of the upper arm and top of the shoulder socket.
The rotator cuff muscles and related connective tissues act as important stabilizers while also helping to move the shoulder joint as well as transfer rotational forces. Your rotator cuff functions to allow you to rotate your shoulder and lift your arm.
What Are Some Of The Most Common Rotator Cuff Injuries?
Since it is such a complicated shoulder structure there are a variety of ways that your rotator cuff can be injured or affected by inflammation. This includes common rotator cuff problems such as:
- Rotator cuff tendonitis
- Rotator cuff strains
- Partial tears of the rotator cuff
- Complete tears of the rotator cuff
- Rotator Cuff Tendonitis
Since it is involved in so many daily motions and athletic activities, the rotator cuff can be susceptible to overuse injuries, inflammation, or irritation. These conditions are often related to how the tendons and cuff muscles contact or rub against each other. Rotator cuff tendonitis is often a result of keeping your shoulder in a single position for a prolonged period.
This can even include seemingly mundane things like sleeping on your shoulder every night or job-related duties that involve a lot of overhead lifting. Certain sports like tennis, baseball, cricket, or jai alai can also put you at increased risk of suffering from rotator cuff tendonitis.
Common Symptoms Of Rotator Cuff Tendonitis
The inflammation or irritation of rotator cuff tendonitis involves the tendons and muscles in the shoulder joint and typically gets worse over time. This includes things like:
- Pain in the front of the shoulder
- Pain and swelling in the side of the arm
- Increasing discomfort when raising or lowering the arm
- An uncomfortable clicking or popping sound when moving the arm
- Persistent discomfort that disrupts sleep
- Decreased range of motion in the arm
- Reduced strength in the affected arm
- Partial Or Complete Rotator Cuff Tears
The rotator cuff can suffer a partial or complete tear. This is when one of the tendons of the rotator cuff becomes damaged or frayed or damaged. In the case of a complete tear, the entire tendon is severed in half or pulled completely off of the bone.
While some partial rotator cuff tears often occur over time from prolonged wear and tear most complete tears are related to acute injuries. This includes things such as trauma involving a fall on the arm and shoulder or from heavy lifting. Many shoulder dislocations also cause a torn rotator cuff.
Common Symptoms Of A Torn Rotator Cuff
Common symptoms of a partial or complete tear in the rotator cuff often include:
- Pain in the front and/or down the outside of the shoulder
- Difficulty raising the arm
- Noticeable weakness in the shoulder
- Pain when the arm is moved in certain ways
- The inability to lift heavy objects
- A clicking or popping when the arm is moved
- Diagnosing A Rotator Cuff Injury
If your physician suspects you have a rotator cuff injury, they will start the examination process by collecting your medical history related to the shoulder. Be sure to let them know about any symptoms you are experiencing as well as any related factors. This includes things like recent shoulder injuries, sports, or physical activity involving the shoulder as part of your profession.
The physician will then test the shoulder for areas of tenderness. This involves a physical exam as well as testing the available range of motion and the strength of the shoulder joint.
If your physician suspects that you’ve suffered a part or complete tear, an X-ray and/or MRI may be ordered.
Throughout the exam and diagnostic imaging, your physician will also try to rule out any other conditions that can cause similar symptoms. This might include simple tests to determine if your symptoms are related to things such as a compressed nerve in the neck or the onset of shoulder arthritis.
Treatment For Rotator Cuff Tendonitis
The first step in treating rotator cuff tendonitis includes starts with reducing any swelling and inflammation. As the discomfort abates physical therapy focuses on strengthening muscles as well as improving your shoulder’s range of motion. Treatments may include:
- Rest or activity modification
- Corticosteroid injections
- Platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections
- Treating A Rotator Cuff Tear
- Minor to moderate rotator cuff tears can sometimes be treated with anti-inflammatory medication, steroid injections, and a prolonged period of physical therapy. Though a more severe tear or a partial rotator cuff tear in an active individual who engages in sports or overhead work, surgery is often necessary.
This is an open arthroscopic procedure with a somewhat larger incision to fully access the complicated structures of the rotator cuff.
Recovery Time After Rotator Cuff Surgery
The recovery time after rotator cuff surgery can vary depending on if a partial or complete tear was surgically treated. You will work closely with a physical therapist to regain motion and strengthen the shoulder.
Recovery time can vary, but most people see a full recovery after rotator cuff surgery in roughly four to six months. Though it might take longer than that to return to heavy lifting vigorous athletic activities.