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Rotator Cuff Injury

What is a rotator cuff injury?

Your rotator cuff consists of muscles and tendons that hold your shoulder in place. It is one of the most important parts of your shoulder.

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Your rotator cuff allows you to lift your arms and reach upward. Each year, millions of people in the United States go to their healthcare providers because of a rotator cuff problem. A rotator cuff tear is a common cause of pain and disability among adults.

What causes a rotator cuff injury?

There are 2 main causes of rotator cuff tears: injury and degeneration. An injury to the rotator cuff, such as a tear, may happen suddenly when falling on an outstretched hand. It may also develop over time due to repetitive activities. Rotator cuff tears may also happen due to aging, with degeneration of the tissues.

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What are the symptoms of rotator cuff tear?

The following are the most common symptoms of a rotator cuff tear. However, you may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Recurrent pain, especially with certain activities
  • Pain that prevents you from sleeping on your injured side
  • Grating or cracking sounds when moving your arm
  • Limited ability to move your arm
  • Muscle weakness

The symptoms of a rotator cuff tear may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Always talk with your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is a rotator cuff injury diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history and physical exam, diagnostic procedures for a rotator cuff injury may include the following:

  • X-ray. A diagnostic test which uses invisible electromagnetic energy beams to produce images of internal tissues, bones, and organs onto film.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). A diagnostic procedure that uses a combination of large magnets, radiofrequencies, and a computer to produce detailed images of organs and structures within the body.

MRI Scan

A rotator cuff may tear partially or fully. Partial-thickness tears do not completely sever the tendon from the shoulder.

How is a rotator cuff injury treated?

Your healthcare provider will determine the specific treatment for a rotator cuff injury, based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history
  • Extent of the condition
  • Your tolerance for specific medicines, procedures, or therapies
  • Expectations for the course of the condition
  • Your opinion or preference

Treatment may include:

  • Rest
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines
  • Strengthening and stretching exercises
  • Ultrasound therapy
  • Corticosteroid injection
  • Surgery (for severe injuries)

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When should I call my healthcare provider?

Notify your healthcare provider if:

  • Your pain becomes worse or begins to interfere with your normal activities or ability to sleep well
  • You can’t use your shoulder as much as you were able to previously

Key points about rotator cuff injury

  • Your rotator cuff allows you to lift your arms and reach upward.
  • There are 2 main causes of rotator cuff tears: injury and degeneration.
  • The symptoms of a rotator cuff tear may resemble other conditions or medical problems. It is important to talk with your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
  • Your healthcare provider will determine specific treatment for your rotator cuff injury.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.
Online Medical Reviewer: Berry, Judith, PhD, APRN
Online Medical Reviewer: Foster, Sara, RN, MPH
Date Last Reviewed: 9/1/2016
© 2000-2016 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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