Rotator cuff injuries are no laughing matter. They’re a big source of discomfort and they can have a big impact on your mobility. Did you know that rotator cuff injuries are the biggest and most common cause of shoulder pain? Well, they are and they’re the reason that some two million people head to their doctor’s office every year.
Just getting dressed or trying to brush your teeth may be very difficult and very painful for you when you have an injury to your rotator cuff. You want to be smart about this and you don’t want to take chances with a rotator cuff injury because it puts you at risk of a disability that can have a serious, lifelong impact on your mobility and the quality of your life. That's why we're going to go over the details so you have a good understanding of what the rotator cuff is, what kinds of injuries can occur, what the symptoms of a rotator cuff injury are like and the information you need to know about treatment if you do suffer a rotator cuff injury.
Let’s take a step back together and look at the big picture and the important role your rotator cuff plays in keeping your shoulder working properly. There are three bones that comprise your shoulder. There’s your shoulder blade, also called the scapula, your collarbone that is known as the clavicle and the long bone in your upper arm, which is also known as your humerus. The shoulder is a ball and socket joint and the rotator cuff is a big part of how it works. The rotator cuff is made up of a group of four muscles and tendons that surround the shoulder joint. It functions to keep the head of your upper arm bone in the shallow socket of the shoulder. This matters to you because it allows you to lift your arm and move it in a variety of directions and it is the key to maintaining your shoulder joint’s stability.
Did you notice that I referred to the socket of the shoulder as shallow? It’s an important detail because the reality is your shoulder joint is not that strong, so it is vulnerable to injuries. There are a variety of rotator cuff injuries. Tendinitis is one type of affliction. This involves the inflammation of the tendons in your rotator cuff that can occur in a variety of ways including overuse and repetitive motion. You can also experience a tear, which can be either full or partial. A dislocated shoulder can lead to rotator cuff injury, too.
Another type of injury has an odd name and it isn’t very pleasant. Shoulder impingement is a problem that occurs when the rotator cuff either catches or rubs on the shoulder bones. It causes the injury and swelling in the tendons, which results in ongoing pain. Shoulder impingement is a potential cause of a tear in the rotator cuff and those are not pleasant.
Previous injuries can be the culprit, too, and this is where it can be a little tricky. You might not realize all the implications when you take a fall, for example, but think of this. A fall can damage your rotator cuff, so it helps to be aware of how seemingly unrelated events can have consequences in more ways than you might think. It’s important to remember that previous injuries can result in structural damage to your shoulder and that can lead to a rotator cuff injury.
There are jobs that involve repetitive overhead motions that can put you at risk for a rotator cuff injury. People who are painters, work in construction, lift heavy packages every day or are movers are more at risk. Swimming and tennis are just two of the sports that involve repetitive movements and can place big demands on your rotator cuff leading to injury.
Like anything else, ongoing wear and tear can also cause an injury to the rotator cuff and, ultimately, aging is the biggest culprit. As we age, our risk of rotator cuff injuries increases because of the wear and tear that has a cumulative effect over time. Having said that, don’t forget young people can have rotator cuff injuries. Dislocated shoulders are a good example. Think of all the sports that involve rotator cuff injuries or those things kids do that result in taking a fall.
Many doctors believe that family history also plays a role and they point to the potential role that genetics play because some families have a history of rotator cuff injuries.
When you injure your rotator cuff, you can experience a number of symptoms. In the case of a sudden injury, some people will literally hear a popping noise. You will likely have pain when lifting or moving your arm and you may experience arm weakness. If you have difficulty lifting your arm over your head, that is often another sign of a rotator cuff injury. You might also experience a sort of crackling sensation in your shoulder during some movements. When you go to sleep at night, you may very well feel pain if you wind up lying on the impacted shoulder. Some people will feel a dull ache that seems to hurt deep into the shoulder.
If you've been having shoulder pain problems, you need to see a doctor right away. Because there can be many causes for shoulder pain that can include a number of types of health problems, you need a professional to diagnose the exact nature of the cause of the pain. And let’s not forget what we discussed earlier about rotator cuff injuries having the potential to result in lifelong limitations. You could wind up experiencing weakness and stiffness for the rest of your life and that means limited mobility and daily discomfort. This is nothing you want to delay in getting seen by a health professional because you risk being able to perform the most basic tasks and that will have a serious impact on the quality of your daily life.
Before you go to the doctor, get organized to make sure you give your doctor all the information necessary to identify the cause of your problem. It’s always a good idea to write down the details so you don’t forget information to share important information with your doctor.
Have you had any falls or injuries involving your arms and shoulders? Are you involved in a sport like swimming or tennis that requires repetitive movements? Is there a history of rotator cuff injuries in your family? What were you doing when you first experienced the pain? Was it a sudden sensation of pain or have you noticed the pain for a while?
Write down everything you can think of. Remember to write down how long you have been experiencing your problem and all the symptoms you are experiencing. If you have been taking anything for the pain, tell the doctor that and, as always, you want to write down all medications you are taking including over the counter medications and any supplements and vitamins.
You can expect that your doctor will conduct a thorough exam and it is possible that some additional tests might be needed to determine the exact cause of your problem. In the case of a rotator cuff injury, how long it will take to recover depends on how serious the injury is and if there are any other issues that could impact your recovery. Because the recovery time can take from weeks to months, you need to follow what you are advised to do because you aren’t going to have a good outcome if you try to rush it. I understand it can be frustrating, but a little frustration is a whole lot better than risking permanent damage.
Don’t be surprised if you are referred to a physical therapist to help you recover and strengthen those muscles. Your doctor and physical therapist will work together, and you can expect they will share information to monitor your progress and determine when you can resume your normal activities. Your physical therapist will be devising a customized treatment plan and will be tracking your range of motion and function to help you achieve the best possible outcome.
The most important message I want you to take with you is if you have a problem, don’t wait to be seen by a medical professional. You’re hurting yourself in the long run. As I always tell you, I want you to live your life to the fullest and have the best possible quality of life. Invest in yourself. You’re worth it!
Bob Cairo is a licensed Physical Therapist at Tidewater Physical Therapy. He can be reached by calling (302)537-7260.
By Bob Cairo
Special to the Coastal Point