rotator cuff

What is Rotator Cuff Injury/Rotator Cuff Tear?

Rotator Cuff injury or strain is an injury to any of the four rotator cuff muscles in the shoulder. We explain the injury and look at treatment options and rotator cuff exercises for this common shoulder pain.


Rotator Cuff Tear (Acute)

This tends to happen as a result of a sudden, powerful movement. This might include falling over onto an outstretched hand at speed, making a sudden thrust with the paddle in kayaking, or following a powerful pitch/throw.

The symptoms of a Torn Rotator Cuff will usually include:

  • Sudden, tearing feeling in the shoulder, followed by severe pain through the arm.
  • Limited movement of the shoulder due to pain or muscle spasm.
  • Severe pain for a few days (due to bleeding and muscle spasm) which usually resolves quickly.
  • Specific tenderness (“x marks the spot”) over the point of rupture/tear.
  • If there is a severe tear, you will not be able to abduct your arm (raise it out to the side) without assistance  

Rotator Cuff Tear (Chronic)

A chronic tear develops over a period of time. They usually occur at or near the tendon, as a result of the tendon rubbing against the overlying bone. This is usually associated with an impingement syndrome.

  • Usually found on the dominant side.
  • More often an affliction of the 40 age group.
  • Pain is worse at night, and can affect sleeping.
  • Gradual worsening of pain, eventually some weakness.
  • Eventually unable to abduct arm (lift out to the side) without assistance or do any activities with the arm above the head.
  • Some limitations of other movements depending on the tendon affected

What is a Rotator Cuff strain?

The rotator cuff is a group of muscles which work together to provide the Glenohumeral (shoulder) joint with dynamic stability, helping to control the joint during rotation (hence the name).

The rotator cuff muscles include:

  • Supraspinatus
  • Infraspinatus
  • Teres Minor
  • Subscapularis

Supraspinatus and Infraspinatus are the most commonly injured rotator cuff muscles. Due to the function of these muscles, sports which involve a lot of shoulder rotation – for example, bowling in cricket, pitching in baseball, swimming, kayaking – often put the rotator cuff muscles under a lot of stress.

Problems with the rotator cuff muscles can be classed into two categories – Tears of the tendons/muscles, and inflammation of the tendons (often called tendinopathy or tendonitis).

When should I seek medical attention for my Rotator Cuff Injury / Rotator Cuff Tear?

Seek medical attention if:

  • The pain persists for more than 2-3 days.
  • You are unable to work due to the pain/limitations.
  • You are unable to reach up or to the side with the affected arm after 2-3 days.
  • You are unable to move the shoulder and arm at all.
  • For any acute injury where you are unable to move the injured shoulder as well as the uninjured shoulder.

What can the athlete do? (Acute Tears)

  • An important part for a torn rotator cuff treatment programme is initial application of ice or cold therapy to reduce swelling
  • Rest the arm – a sling can sometimes be quite useful if you still need to go to work/school, which can be removed at night
  • Consider consulting a physiotherapist who can assist you with rehabilitating the injury

What can a Sports Injury professional do?

  • Control the pain with appropriate medications
  • You may require imaging studies (x-ray, MRI, CT Scan) to identify what the problem is and rule out any fractures

If the injury is quite severe and you are young and active, you might require an operation to fix the tear. Indications include:

  • Under 60 years old
  • Complete tears of the tendon/muscle
  • Failure of other treatments after 6 weeks
  • Professional/keen sports people
  • If your job requires constant shoulder use

What can the athlete do? (Chronic tears)

  • Control pain
  • Apply ice as above
  • Ice Ice Ice

What can a Sports Injury professional do?

  • Sometimes you might be referred for an injection of steroid medication directly into the site of the problem to help reduce any inflammation and allow you to proceed with rehabilitation
  • Shoulder exercises which can be provided by a physiotherapist
  • You may require surgery, with the indications as above

How long will it take to heal?

  • Depending on several factors, conservative rotator cuff injury treatment has a 40-90% success rate at fixing the problem.
  • Surgery often has good results, with some studies citing a 94% satisfaction rate with the surgery, resulting in lasting pain relief and improved function.
  • Very extensive tears often have a poor surgical outcome, however this injury is thankfully quite rare. If you are older, it will take you longer to heal due to changes in your physiology.