Rotator cuff tears are a common type of shoulder injury, and when you have shoulder pain they may be one of the first possibilities that come to mind. However, the shoulder is very complex. It’s made up of three bones and numerous muscles, tendons and ligaments. Any of these can be injured, and it may not always be clear just what type of shoulder injury you’ve sustained at first.
In this blog, NYC orthopedic shoulder surgeon, Dr. Francis Mendoza, will explain what a rotator cuff tear is and what symptoms to look for if you think you may have torn your rotator cuff.
What does a rotator cuff tear involve?
The rotator cuff includes four muscles on, under, and around your shoulder blade, plus their associated tendons. They all attach at the shoulder joint, and together they rotate and elevate your arm. When you have a rotator cuff tear, one or more of these muscles or tendons becomes partially or even totally detached from the bone it’s connected to.
There are many possible causes for a rotator cuff tear. It can be an acute injury—something which happens suddenly, as the result of some kind of trauma—or a degenerative problem related to wear and tear. Acute injuries often occur in conjunction with other shoulder injuries, such as dislocations or broken bones. They can be the result of abruptly lifting something too heavy or rotating your arm against resistance with too much force. Falling on an outstretched arm is one common type of acute injury.
However, most rotator cuff tears are the result of normal wear and tear on the tendon. Common causes of degenerative injuries are repetitive strain and bone spurs. Repetitive motions slowly but surely wear out the tendon and cause it to fray. Anything that requires you to move your arm in the same pattern repeatedly can contribute. Pitching a baseball, playing tennis, and rowing are prime examples. Bone spurs within the shoulder joint can also rub on the rotator cuff tendons, causing them to fray and weakening them over time.
What are the common torn rotator cuff symptoms?
Common torn rotator cuff symptoms include:
- Pain when lifting and lowering your arm
- Pain at rest and at night, particularly if lying on the affected shoulder
- Weakness when lifting or rotating your arm
- Stiffness in the shoulder joint
- Crackling sensation (crepitus) when moving your shoulder into certain positions
- Snapping sensation or immediate weakness in the upper arm (if the tear was caused by a traumatic injury)
How do torn rotator cuff symptoms change over time?
Acute tears happen suddenly and usually cause serious pain immediately. You may even feel a snapping or popping sensation when the tendon tears.
Degenerative injuries also cause pain, but usually to a lesser degree. Symptoms develop slowly and build over time. In some cases, you may only have symptoms when performing certain activities.
Over time, the pain from a degenerative tear may become more noticeable when you’re resting and anti-inflammatory medications may no longer help. You might have pain when you lie on the affected shoulder at night. Pain and weakness in your shoulder may start to make routine activities such as combing your hair or reaching behind your back more difficult or even impossible.
What is the first step to getting treatment for torn rotator cuff symptoms?
If you have torn rotator cuff symptoms, it’s important to see an orthopedic physician who specializes in shoulder injuries to evaluate you and determine the severity of your tear. There are numerous treatments that can provide relief from torn rotator cuff symptoms. Conservative treatments often succeed in improving symptoms, but if conservative measures don’t ease your pain, Dr. Mendoza may recommend a rotator cuff repair surgery such as arthroscopic rotator cuff repair.
You don’t have to live with shoulder pain. If you’re suffering from torn rotator cuff symptoms, schedule an appointment today at FXM Shoulders to have your shoulder evaluated.