Is Your Shoulder Pain a Rotator Cuff Injury?

December 26, 2014 Sara Jurek, MD

What exactly is the rotator cuff?

The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that envelope and attach to the “ball” of the shoulder (the humeral head). The cuff is responsible for keeping the ball squarely centered within the shallow socket of the shoulder. 

What are the symptoms of a rotator cuff injury and who is affected?

A rotator cuff injury can cause a dull (and sometimes sharp) ache in the shoulder, which often becomes worse when you try and sleep on that side. This pain could be the result of inflammation or a tear of the tendon. The risk of a rotator cuff tear increases with age and is quite common in people who perform repeated overhead motions in their jobs or sports (electricians, painters, athletes who play tennis, etc.) 

Rotator cuff injury causes pain that:
  • Disturbs your sleep, particularly when you try and sleep on that side

  • Is associated with arm weakness

  • Feels like a deep, dull ache in your shoulder

  • Makes your daily activities (like reaching behind you or combing your hair) difficult

How are cuff injuries treated?

Depending on a multitude of factors, your doctor may recommend conservative treatment (rest, ice, physical therapy, medication, an injection) or he/she may recommend surgery.
  • Physical therapy can help restore strength and range of motion of your shoulder.

  • A steroid injection can be very helpful, especially if your shoulder pain is interfering with your sleep or daily activities. Injections should be used judiciously; too many injections too frequently may contribute to weakening of the tendon.

  • Surgery is recommended for some rotator cuff injuries that don’t respond to non-operative management. Surgery is also recommended for rotator cuff injuries involving a complete tear of the tendon. This is usually diagnosed with your doctor’s physical exam and an imaging study, such as an MRI or ultrasound exam of your shoulder. Shoulder surgery specialists can often accomplish a complete repair through arthroscopic surgery involving very small incisions and less surgical trauma to the shoulder. Sometimes, the tendon tear is so severe and associated with severe arthritis that the surgeon may recommend shoulder replacement surgery. This state-of-the-art procedure (termed a reverse total shoulder arthroplasty) allows your shoulder to work optimally without a functional rotator cuff.

If your shoulder pain is severe or if it hasn’t lessened in severity after more than a few days, seek medical attention. For help finding the right doctor, call 1-800-SWEDISH.

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