Rotary Cuff Injuries: Do Your Shoulders Hurt?

Submitted by SharpMan Editorial Team on Saturday 16th October 2010
In this article
  • What is the rotator cuff injury?
  • What are the symptoms?
  • Some popular treatments.

As part of my New Year’s resolution, I promised that I would lose those extra pounds. Treadmills, exercise bikes, weights…the works… with the addition of swimming at least three times a week. After my first trip to the pool, I began feeling some "twinges" in my shoulders. I learned that, for many people, these twinges are warning signs of a rotator cuff injury. Common recreational activities such as swimming, tennis and even painting can overwork your shoulders. Read on as SharpMan brings you the 411 on how to handle a rotator cuff injury…

The Rotator Cuff is Connected to the What?

The rotator cuff is a team of 4 muscles and connecting tendons that attach your upper arm to your shoulder blade. These muscles, supraspenatus (top of the shoulder), subscapalaris (front of the shoulder), and infraspinatus and teres minn (back of the shoulder), comprise the rotator cuff.

This muscle grouping helps lift the shoulder up toward the head and away from the body in activities such as throwing or pushing. Not only is it common to inflame or injure these muscles and tendons; but as we age, we lose elasticity in our muscles and tendons and become more susceptible to shoulder injuries. Ouch.

It Hurts When I…

Pain is the most common signal that you are suffering from an injury. Usually, the entire

shoulder area experiences discomfort and even some dull aching. If the pain

becomes more noticeable when doing activities that involve lifting your arms over

your head, that’s a strong indication that you have a rotator cuff injury. Haven’t been to the gym lately and your shoulder still hurts? Sometimes, sleeping on your side may cause pain because the shoulder nerves are being compressed. The main symptoms of a rotator cuff injury are:

  • Pain
  • Loss of motion or the range of shoulder motion.
  • A decrease in arm strength, particularly while throwing, pushing or pulling.

Types of Rotator Cuff Injuries

All of the following types of rotator cuff injuries require the attention of your doctor:

Tendonitis, or inflammation of the tendons, is the most common cause of rotator cuff pain and often results from simply overusing your shoulders. You’ll experience moderate to severe pain in the shoulder area and some limited range of motion. You might even see some actual bruises in the shoulder area in this stage.

Tears in the tendon occur when your tendons actually separate from your bone. Eeew. Whether partial or complete, these tears cause severe pain and immediate loss of mobility.

Instability Inpingment occurs when a repetitive activity weakens and eventually wears out the rotator cuff tendons.

Diagnosing Your Pain

When you visit your physician, he and she will assist you in performing a quick exam known as the empty can test. You’ll be asked to stretch out your arm and rotated it to the side and then down, as if you were emptying a can of soda. While you turn your arm, your doctor will push against your hand. If you feel a sharp pain shooting into your shoulder, bingo, you’ve got a rotator cuff injury.

Your doctor will likely recommend additional diagnostic techniques, including:

X-ray — To determine if your bones are properly aligned.

MRI — To provide a cross-section view of your rotator cuff, allowing for more precise diagnosis.

Arthogram — To detect tears in joints and tendons.

Ultrasound — To provide a more comprehensive view of the deep tissue in your shoulder.

Treatment of Minor Rotator Cuff Injuries

Depending upon the severity of your rotator cuff injury, several non-surgical treatments which can provide great results:

Rest. This means complete immobilization your shoulder until the injury has healed. The amount of time will vary depending on the extent of the injury, your age and physical conditioning. Wearing a sling to limit the motion of your shoulder during the day can help even more. At night, placing a pillow between your arm and body to stabilize the shoulder is also recommended.

Physical Training. Exercises are done in two phases. In phase one, fitness training is aimed at restoring flexibility. Phase two targets strengthening the muscles to guard against further injury.

Heat/Cold Therapy. You may reduce pain and inflammation by alternating a regiment of ice packs and heating pads applied directly to the area that hurts, for no more than 20 minute each.

Medications. Anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen or aspirin may relieve discomfort in minor injures. If your pain is more intense, you may wish to see your doctor about more aggressive short-term pain management medications, including cortisone shots.

Treatment of More Serious Rotator Cuff Injuries

Severe injuries may require surgery. Depending on the size, location and type of your injury, common surgical options for repairing the rotator cuff include: Open, Mini-Open, and Arthroscopic.

Open Surgery. The most invasive treatment is used for complete muscle and tendon tears. In this procedure, a single large incision is made and the tendon is trimmed and reattached to the bone.

Arthroscopic Surgery. This form of treatment requires only a small incision and the insertion of tiny instruments to repair the tendon.

Mini-Open Surgery. This procedure is a combination of Open and Arthroscopic Surgery methods.

All recovery times are short; and patients usually go home the day of their surgery. Understandably, patients who undergo arthroscopic surgery often heal faster and recover much quicker than those who have open surgery.

Of course, techniques continue to improve. The latest surgical development, Arthroscopic Rotator Cuff Repair, involves four smaller incisions and the use of even smaller instruments to reattach torn tendons. A less invasive surgery generally results in less discomfort, smaller scars and faster recovery times — allowing you to get back in the pool, on the court or ball field … and of course, back to that New Year’s Resolution that started the whole thing to begin with.

More Info

For more information, please visit the following online resources:

This article last updated on Saturday 16th October 2010
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