What are rotator cuff disorders?
The rotator cuff is a group of tough, flexible fibers (tendons) and muscles in the shoulder. Rotator cuff disorders occur when tissues in the shoulder get irritated or damaged. Rotator cuff disorders include:
- Inflammation of the tendons (tendinitis) or of a bursa (bursitis). In the shoulder, a bursa is a small, fluid-filled sac that serves as a cushion between the tendons and the bones.
- Impingement, in which a tendon is squeezed and rubs against bone.
- Calcium buildup in the tendons, which causes a painful condition called calcific tendinitis.
- Partial or complete tears of the rotator cuff tendons.
How does the shoulder work, and what does the rotator cuff do?
The shoulder is a joint with three main bones: the upper arm bone (humerus), the collarbone (clavicle), and the shoulder blade (scapula). The bones are held together by muscles, tendons, and ligaments. The rotator cuff keeps the upper arm bone in the shoulder socket and lets you raise and twist your arm.
The shoulder is a ball-and-socket joint. The ball at the top of the upper arm bone fits into the socket of the shoulder blade. This socket is shallow, which lets you move your arm in a wide range of motion. But it also means that the muscles and tendons of the rotator cuff have to work hard to hold the bones in place. As a result, they are easy to injure and are prone to wear and tear.
What causes rotator cuff disorders?
Most rotator cuff disorders are caused by a combination of:
- Normal wear and tear. Using your shoulder for many years slowly damages the rotator cuff. As you age, everyday activities can lead to changes in the rotator cuff, such as thinning and fraying of the tendons and reduced blood supply.
- Overuse. Activities in which you use your arms above your head a lot—such as tennis, swimming, or house painting—can lead to rotator cuff problems. Even normal motions made often over a long period can stress or injure the rotator cuff.
It takes great force to tear a healthy rotator cuff tendon. This can happen during sports, an accident, or a severe fall. But even a simple movement like lifting a suitcase can cause a rotator cuff tear in an older adult or someone whose shoulder is already damaged.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of a rotator cuff disorder include pain and weakness in the shoulder. Most often, the pain is on the side and front of the upper arm and shoulder. It may hurt or be impossible to do everyday things, such as comb your hair, tuck in your shirt, or reach for something. You may have pain during the night and trouble sleeping.
How are rotator cuff disorders diagnosed?
To diagnose a rotator cuff disorder, doctors ask about any shoulder injuries or past shoulder pain. They also do a physical exam to see how well the shoulder works and to find painful areas or activities. Moving your arm in certain ways can help a doctor learn about the condition of the rotator cuff.
How are they treated?
It is important to treat a rotator cuff problem. Without treatment, your shoulder may get weaker and you may not be able to lift up your arm.
For most rotator cuff disorders, doctors recommend these steps first:
- Rest the shoulder. Use the arm, but do so carefully. Don't keep the shoulder still with a sling or brace. This can lead to stiffness or even a frozen shoulder (adhesive capsulitis).
- Use ice or heat on the shoulder, whichever feels better.
- Take anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to relieve pain and reduce swelling and inflammation. Examples include ibuprofen (such as Advil) and naproxen (such as Aleve). Or try acetaminophen (such as Tylenol). It can help with pain but will not reduce swelling or inflammation. Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.
- Avoid positions and activities that are uncomfortable, such as lifting or reaching overhead. Stop any activity that hurts the shoulder.
The doctor may also suggest physical therapy. Physical therapy can reduce pain and help make your shoulder stronger and more flexible. In physical therapy, you learn exercises to stretch and strengthen your shoulder. After you learn the exercises, you can do them at home.
It is important to give treatment time to work. It may take from a couple of weeks to several months to get good results.
If other treatments don't help, your doctor may give you shots of steroid medicine in the shoulder. The shots probably don't cure rotator cuff disorders. But they can help relieve pain and inflammation so you are able to do exercises to strengthen the shoulder. The shots may also help your doctor find out if your shoulder pain is from your rotator cuff. If a steroid shot near the rotator cuff relieves your pain, even if the pain comes back later, it means the rotator cuff—not some other shoulder problem—is causing the pain.
Most rotator cuff disorders aren't treated with surgery. But doctors may do surgery if a rotator cuff tendon is torn or if several months of other treatments have not helped.
- Surgery may be a good choice if you are young and your rotator cuff has been in good shape. Surgery may not work as well if your tendons are weak and frayed.
- Surgery is not a substitute for physical therapy. Even after surgery, you may need months of physical therapy to have a full recovery.