Shoulder injuries, and tears to the rotator cuff in particular, are one of the leading causes of pain and disability for adults in the United States.
Rotator cuff injuries affect millions of people each year, but much like any orthopaedic injury, they affect everyone a bit differently. As a result, orthopaedic physicians and surgeons work diligently to identify the best course of treatment and rehabilitation for each patient’s individual care needs.
What is a Rotator Cuff?
There are four muscles in the shoulder that make up the rotator cuff. The tendons in these muscles combine to form a protective cover over the top of the shoulder and around the upper half of the arm bone, or “humerus.”
Muscles in the rotator cuff are extremely important, as they stabilize and facilitate movement in the shoulder joints. True to its name, the rotator cuff is what allows you to lift your arms and rotate your shoulders. Injuries to the rotator cuff are not only painful, but detrimental to a person’s ability to utilize full function of their arm.
Causes of Rotator Cuff Tears
Typically, rotator cuff tears are caused by one of two things:
- Injury – Rotator cuff tears affect people of all ages, but for younger patients, they most-commonly result from throwing, lifting, and a variety of other activity or sports-related injuries. Tears to the rotator cuff may also result from serious injuries like bone breaks, shoulder dislocations or other instances of severe bodily trauma. Additionally, rotator cuff tears and other shoulder injuries sometimes accompany prior conditions like osteoarthritis, bone spurs, or joint complications.
- Degeneration – Rotator cuff tears may also occur due to prolonged wear and tear on the shoulder joints and muscles. Chronic conditions like inflammation or tendonitis, which contribute to rotator cuff tears, often result when the shoulder is kept in a single position for an extended period of time – like sleeping on your shoulder every night, for example. Strain from overhead work-related activities like lifting heavy objects or repetitive athletic motions like those used in tennis, baseball, or golf, may also contribute to the prolonged muscle stress that results in rotator cuff tears.
Tears to the rotator cuff can be partial, where tendons are damaged but not actually severed, or total, where muscle are torn completely or separated from the bone. In both scenarios, damage to the rotator cuff has the potential to weaken the entire shoulder, making even simple, everyday tasks or activities a major struggle.
Treatment & Recovery Options
Fortunately, rotator cuff tears can be effectively treated with the right diagnosis and proper treatment. When someone suffers a rotator cuff tear, their orthopaedic physician will begin by examining their shoulder thoroughly to assess the extent of the damage and to measure their strength and range of motion. Imaging tests like an x-ray, MRI, or ultrasound may also be utilized during the initial exam. These assessments allow orthopaedic physicians and surgeons to optimize treatments by creating custom care plans that account for a patient’s unique health and lifestyle needs.
Nearly 80% of all rotator cuff tear patients are able to find relief from their pain symptoms and improve or restore function in their shoulder without the need for surgical intervention. Non-surgical treatments can include everything from rest and physical therapy exercises to corticosteroid injections and anti-inflammatory medications that are used to reduce swelling and alleviate pain.
Of course, when symptoms persist or when the injury is severe, rotator cuff surgery may be considered. These procedures are minimally-invasive, and are used to reattach or repair tears in the muscles and tendons or to eliminate related issues like bone spurs. Rotator cuff surgery is typically performed arthroscopically, utilizing a few small incisions and are performed on an outpatient basis.Our board-certified orthopaedic physicians at Main Line Health offer compassionate and comprehensive care for an array of shoulder, neck, and spinal conditions. Our patients also have direct access to specialists in sports medicine, knee, hip, and joint disorders, and a variety of complex musculoskeletal conditions via a referral from their orthopaedic physician or primary care doctor.
We prioritize minimally-invasive and holistic care options that ensure positive outcomes and personalized treatment, recovery, and rehabilitation experiences for our patients. Visit the Main Line Health website to learn more about orthopaedic care or to find an orthopaedic physician.