Rotator cuff injuries are some of the most common causes of pain and discomfort for adults, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. And yet, many people live with the pain — describing it as a “dull ache” — unaware that targeted treatment can provide relief.
“One hundred percent of my practice consists of the treatment of shoulder disorders, and I see a lot of rotator cuff injuries,” says Dr. Benjamin DuBois, an orthopedic surgeon with Sharp Grossmont Hospital. “Patients usually come to me complaining of constant shoulder pain, and after a physical exam, an MRI or ultrasound can determine the severity of the rotator cuff damage.”
Signs of a rotator cuff injury include:
- Increasing pain in the shoulder and side of the arm while engaging in activity
- Shoulder pain that increases at night and when laying down
- Shoulder pain that interferes with sleep
- Difficulty reaching behind your back for activities, such as brushing your hair
- Shoulder pain that may be accompanied by weakness of the arm
Rotator cuff fast facts
Dr. DuBois shares his top five facts you should know about the rotator cuff, related injuries and treatment options:
- Your shoulder is a ball-and-socket joint.
The rotator cuff helps keep the ball centered in its socket. It consists of four muscles that come together as tendons, attaching the upper arm bone to the shoulder blade. This allows for lifting and rotating the arm. When the rotator cuff tendons are injured or damaged, the entire shoulder can become inflamed, resulting in painful movement.
- Age is often a factor.
Although many assume rotator cuff injuries are limited to professional athletes, such as pitchers and tennis players, the majority of people with these injuries are over age 50. They are active, like to stay in shape and may have had injuries that degenerated the rotator cuff over time. Or they simply slip and fall and have a traumatic tear.
- Treatments range from rest to surgery.
Small rotator cuff injuries can be treated through rest, ice, physical therapy and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen. For more severe injuries, your doctor may recommend a steroid injection, such as cortisone, to help relieve pain. However, surgery is warranted when all other treatments have failed to offer relief.
- Rates of recovery vary.
Depending on the seriousness of the injury and treatment, recovery time may vary. You can resume activities when you no longer feel pain, can fully lift and rotate your arm with ease, and your sleep cycle is no longer disrupted.
- Shoulder strengthening can help with injury prevention.
Although there are no specific exercises or activities that can prevent rotator cuff injuries, it is important to maintain the strength and flexibility of your shoulder.
According to Dr. DuBois, rotator cuff injuries are usually degenerative in nature. Just as your skin ages on the outside, the same happens on the inside as your blood supply changes.
“Continuous use or relatively small injuries can cause a tear,” Dr. DuBois says. “The good news is that once you have the correct diagnosis, a shoulder specialist can provide the exact treatment you need.”