What’s the big deal about rotator cuff injuries?

Date Published: 
July 3, 2015

It is a big deal. Rotator cuff injuries are more common than most people think. The statistics should make you think twice. Research has proven that rotator cuff-related problems rank as the most common musculoskeletal disorder. Many doctors have find rotator cuff damage to be the leading, most common source of shoulder pain.

More than 200,000 people have surgery on a shoulder every year in the U.S. because of a rotator cuff problem. Another 400,000 have surgery because of partial rotator cuff tears or rotator cuff tendonitis. Overall, some reports have found that more than 15 million people across the U.S. are at risk of experiencing a disability associated with rotator cuff injuries.

The bottom line is that a rotator cuff injury isn’t something to take lightly. Left untreated, you or someone you know can risk lifelong discomfort and limitations in movement and your range of motion that can have a huge impact on what you can or can’t do for the rest of your life.

That’s why we’re going to look at what the rotator cuff is, what injuries can result, and what you should know about treatment and prevention.

Do you know what a rotator cuff is and where it’s located? The rotator cuff is made up of four muscles. Its job is to work with the bones in your shoulder joint to hold your arms in place and let you move your arms in many directions.

It also has a big job helping the shoulder joint maintain stability. While your shoulder is all about giving you mobility, it isn’t the strongest joint. That makes it vulnerable to injuries.

When it comes to rotator cuff injuries, while people over the age of 40 are more prone to rotator cuff injuries, the young are at risk, too. Dislocated shoulders can lead to rotator cuff injuries at any age. People who suffer from chronic shoulder inflammation are at risk for rotator cuff injuries, too.

Because rotator cuff injuries can come from repeated movements involving the shoulder, if the athlete in your house takes part in competitive sports such as baseball, swimming, football and tennis, forceful movements involving the shoulders in playing these sports put them at risk.

Rotator cuff injuries can also result from falling on your shoulder, trying to stop yourself from falling by using your arm or arms to break a fall, or from jobs requiring heavy lifting and repetitive motions. Some rotator cuff injuries result from a previous injury to a shoulder that has caused structural damage. Construction workers, movers, carpenters and house painters are among the folks that are more at risk.

Ultimately, aging is the biggest culprit. As we age, our risk of rotator cuff injuries increases because the wear and tear has a cumulative effect over time. Many doctors believe family history plays a role, and they point to the potential for a genetic component, because some families seem to have an ongoing history of rotator cuff injuries.

Rotator cuff injuries range from acute or chronic tears to tendinitis and degeneration, which is when the muscles have worn. Typically, a rotator cuff tear occurs gradually over time, but that isn’t so for all cases. They can happen suddenly, and when they do, you’ll know it. You might feel a sort of pop followed by extreme pain and a sense of weakness in the arm.

Generally, people who have experienced rotator cuff injuries report serious pain in the arm and shoulder. They also say they will feel a dull ache that seems to hurt deep into the shoulder.

Arm weakness is a typical symptom across the variety of rotator cuff injuries, as is difficulty moving the shoulder. If you try to lift your arm above your head, a rotator cuff injury can make that a very painful effort. Sleeping can be difficult, and even the simplest task, like putting a dish up in a cupboard or combing your hair, can become a painful challenge.

If you’ve been experiencing problems, you know what you need to do right away: See a doctor. You need to remember that there can be a variety of causes for shoulder pain that can include a number of other health issues.

If it is rotator cuff-related, that’s not something you want to put off, either. Rotator cuff injuries can result in lifelong problems, including weakness and stiffness, which can be both limiting and unpleasant. It can also lead to a degradation of the shoulder joint and that is going to really impact your most basic abilities and 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 pinpoint the cause of your problem. Write down key information to share with your doctor, such as whether you have had any falls or injuries involving your arms and shoulders, whether you are involved in a sport like swimming or baseball that involves forceful repetitive movements, and remember to write down whether there is a history of rotator cuff injuries in your family.

Tell the doctor how long you have been experiencing your problem and all the symptoms you are experiencing. Expect that your doctor will conduct a thorough exam and may also order some additional tests to determine the exact cause of your problem.

If you do have a rotator cuff injury, how long it will take to recover depends on how serious the injury is and whether or not you will require surgery. Recovery times can take anywhere from weeks or months to get you back to feeling normal.

My rule of thumb is very simple. Whatever time it takes, go with it and don’t try to rush it. Rushing it means you are risking permanent damage, and that isn’t worth it. For many of these injuries you will be referred to a physical therapist to help reach recovery and strengthen the muscles.

Your doctor and physical therapist will work together to determine when you can resume your normal activities. Your physical therapist will be monitoring your range of motion and function and will be keeping your doctor informed about such key indicators as when you no longer feel pain and the strength of function. If your injury resulted from participating in a sport, your physical therapist is likely going to advise you about a gradual return to full playing capacity.

The old saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure is true. Granted, accidents do happen, but some falls can be prevented. Are there unsecured scatter rugs in your house? Are chairs placed so that all four legs remain firmly balanced on the floor? Checking your environment and making safety improvements will help.

Overuse injures can be prevented, too, with some properly planned warmup exercises that include stretches that are designed to help avoid stressing your shoulders. For sports, as well as your work and other daily activities, stretching goes a long way in preventing a painful rotator cuff injury. The key is to do it properly.

Talk to a physical therapist and find out what warmup exercises and other prevention strategies can work for you, based on your specific activities and your personal health profile.

I know you hear this from me all the time, but there’s a reason for it: Don’t wait for problems to get out of control. Get ahead of it and preserve your quality of life.

Bob Cairo is a licensed physical therapist at Tidewater Physical Therapy. He can be reached by calling (302) 537-7260.