Your rotator cuff isn’t a single muscle. It’s actually a group of four muscles that come together as tendons to form a “cuff” around the shoulder region. The four muscles are known as the: supraspinatus, infraspinatus, subscapularis and teres minor. All originate from the shoulder blade.
So what do you need to know about rotator cuff tears? Here are the basics.
What causes a rotator cuff tear?
Rotator cuff injuries don’t just happen during high impact sports or after a fall. They can happen as a result of normal age-related wear and tear or degeneration of a tendon.
Rotator cuff injuries are also common in those who repeatedly perform overhead motions in their jobs such as painters, carpenters, or individuals that play sports like baseball or tennis.
What are the risk factors for a rotator cuff tear?
Although rotator cuff injuries can happen for different reasons, the following factors may increase your risk of having one1.
- Age – As we get older, the strength of our bones, joints, and muscles decreases. This raises the risk of a rotator cuff injury and is one of the reasons they are most common in people older than 40.
- Certain sports – Athletes who regularly use repetitive arm motions such as baseball pitchers, archers, and tennis players have a greater risk of having a rotator cuff tear.
- Construction jobs – Occupations such as carpentry or house painting require repetitive arm motions, often overhead, that can damage the rotator cuff over time.
- Family history – There is some evidence that a genetic component may play a role in the development of rotator cuff injuries since they appear to occur more in certain families.
Rotator cuff tears are not always obvious and not everyone that has one will experience discomfort. However, over a period of time pain usually does creep in alongside some (or all) of these symptoms2:
- Trouble raising your arm
- Pain when moving your arm in certain motions
- A new unexplained weakness in your shoulder
- An inability to lift things like you normally do
- Hearing a click or popping when you move your arm
Make an appointment to see your doctor if you notice any of these symptoms. Left untreated, a torn rotator cuff can get much worse and result in things like frozen shoulder or arthritis–both conditions that are harder to treat.
The diagnosis of a torn rotator cuff can only be made by your doctor. After taking a full medical history and carrying out a physical exam your doctor is usually able to make a diagnosis on that alone. In some instances, they might also order an MRI scan to get a better idea of the extent of the damage.
Depending on the severity of your rotator cuff tear and the depth of your symptoms, a combination of physical therapy (to make your shoulder muscles stronger) and medications like acetaminophen and anti-inflammatory drugs may be used to help with pain and swelling.
If these methods don’t work or the rotator cuff has a complete tear then surgery may be required. In all instances, your doctor should always discuss your options and take into account your personal preferences when looking at appropriate treatments for you.
1- Mayo clinic. Rotator cuff injuries. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/rotator-cuff-injury/symptoms-causes/syc-20350225
2- WebMD Medical Reference. What Is a Rotator Cuff Tear? Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on 7/, 017. https://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/guide/rotator-cuff-tear#1