Frequently Asked Questions about the Shoulder
What is a torn Rotator Cuff?
The shoulder is an elegant and complex piece of machinery. Its design allows us to reach and use our hands in many different positions. However, while the shoulder joint has great range of motion, it is not very stable. This makes the shoulder vulnerable to problems if any of its parts aren't in good working order.
The rotator cuff tendons are key to the healthy functioning of the shoulder. They are subject to a lot of wear and tear, or degeneration, as we use our arms. Tearing of the rotator cuff tendons is an especially painful injury. A torn rotator cuff creates a very weak shoulder. Most of the time patients with torn rotator cuffs are in late middle age. But rotator cuffs tears can happen at any age.
What Causes the Rotator Cuff to Tear?
The rotator cuff tendons have areas of very low blood supply. The more blood supply a tissue has, the better and faster it can repair and maintain itself. The areas of poor blood supply in the rotator cuff make these tendons especially vulnerable to degeneration from aging.
The degeneration of aging helps explain why the rotator cuff tear is such a common injury later in life. Rotator cuff tears usually occur in areas of the tendon that had low blood supply to begin with and then were further weakened by degeneration.
This problem of degeneration may be accelerated by repeating the same types of shoulder motions. This can happen with overhand athletes, such as baseball pitchers. Even doing routine chores like cleaning windows, washing and waxing cars, or painting can cause the rotator cuff to fatigue from overuse.
Excessive force can tear weak rotator cuff tendons. This force can come from trying to catch a heavy falling object or lifting an extremely heavy object with the arm extended. The force can also be from a fall directly onto the shoulder. Sometimes injuries that tear the rotator cuff are painful, but sometimes they aren't. Researchers estimate that up to 40 percent of people may have a mild rotator cuff tear without even knowing it.
The typical patient with a rotator cuff tear is in late middle age and has had problems with the shoulder for some time. This patient then lifts a load or suffers an injury that tears the tendon. After the injury, the patient is unable to raise the arm. However, these injuries also occur in young people. Overuse or injury at any age can cause rotator cuff tears.
What are symptoms of a torn Rotator Cuff?
What does a rotator cuff tear feel like?
Rotator cuff tears cause pain and weakness in the affected shoulder. In some cases, a rotator cuff may tear only partially. The shoulder may be painful, but you can still move the arm in a normal range of motion. In general, the larger the tear, the more weakness it causes.
In other cases, the rotator cuff tendons completely rupture. A complete tear makes it impossible to move the arm in a normal range of motion. It is usually impossible to raise the arm away from your side by yourself.
Most rotator cuff tears cause a vague pain in the shoulder area. They may also cause a catching sensation when you move your arm. Most people say they can't sleep on the affected side due to the pain.
What can I do to treat a torn Rotator Cuff?
Your doctor's first goal will be to help control your pain and inflammation. Initial treatment is usually rest and anti-inflammatory medication, such as aspirin or ibuprofen. This medicine is used mainly to control pain. Your doctor may suggest a cortisone injection if you have trouble getting your pain under control. Cortisone is a very effective anti-inflammatory medication.
Your doctor will probably have a physical or occupational therapist direct your rehabilitation program. At first, treatments such as heat and ice focus on easing pain and inflammation. Hands-on treatments and various types of exercises are used to improve the range of motion in your shoulder and the nearby joints and muscles.
Later, you will do strengthening exercises to improve the strength and control of the rotator cuff and shoulder blade muscles. Your therapist will help you retrain these muscles to keep the ball of the humerus in the socket. This will help your shoulder move smoothly during all of your activities.
You may need therapy treatments for six to eight weeks. Most patients are able to get back to their activities with full use of their arm within this amount of time.