The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that surround the shoulder joint, keeping the head of your upper arm bone firmly within the shallow socket of the shoulder. A rotator cuff injury can cause a dull ache in the shoulder, which often worsens when you try to sleep on the involved side.
Rotator cuff injuries occur most often in people who repeatedly perform overhead motions in their jobs or sports. Examples include painters, carpenters, and people who play baseball or tennis. The risk of rotator cuff injury also increases with age.
Many people recover from rotator cuff disease with physical therapy exercises that improve flexibility and strength of the muscles surrounding the shoulder joint.
Sometimes, rotator cuff tears may occur as a result of a single injury. In those circumstances, medical care should be provided as soon as possible. Extensive rotator cuff tears may require surgical repair, transfer of alternative tendons or joint replacement.
The pain associated with a rotator cuff injury may:
- Be described as a dull ache deep in the shoulder
- Disturb sleep, particularly if you lie on the affected shoulder
- Make it difficult to comb your hair or reach behind your back
- Be accompanied by arm weakness
When to see a doctor
Shoulder pain that is short-lived may be evaluated by your family doctor. See your doctor right away if you have immediate weakness in your arm after an injury.
Rotator cuff disease may be the result of either a substantial injury to the shoulder or to progressive degeneration or wear and tear of the tendon tissue. Repetitive overhead activity or heavy lifting over a prolonged period of time may irritate or damage the tendon.
The following factors may increase your risk of having a rotator cuff injury:
- Age. As you get older, your risk of a rotator cuff injury increases. Rotator cuff tears are most common in people older than 40.
- Certain sports. Athletes who regularly use repetitive arm motions, such as baseball pitchers, archers and tennis players, have a greater risk of having a rotator cuff injury.
- Construction jobs. Occupations such as carpentry or house painting require repetitive arm motions, often overhead, that can damage the rotator cuff over time.
- Family history. There may be a genetic component involved with rotator cuff injuries as they appear to occur more commonly in certain families.
Without treatment, rotator cuff problems may lead to permanent loss of motion or weakness, and may result in progressive degeneration of the shoulder joint. Although resting your shoulder is necessary for your recovery, keeping your shoulder immobilized for a prolonged time can cause the connective tissue enclosing the joint to become thickened and tight (frozen shoulder).
If you are at risk of rotator cuff injuries or if you’ve had a rotator cuff injury in the past, daily shoulder stretches and strengthening exercises can help prevent future injury.
Most people exercise the front muscles of the chest, shoulder and upper arm, but it is equally important to strengthen the muscles in the back of the shoulder and around the shoulder blade to optimize shoulder muscle balance. Your doctor or a physical therapist can help you plan an exercise routine.
Conservative treatments — such as rest, ice and physical therapy — sometimes are all that’s needed to recover from a rotator cuff injury. If your injury is severe and involves a complete tear of the muscle or tendon, you might need surgery.
Physiotherapy is usually one of the first treatments your doctor may suggest. Exercises tailored to the specific location of your rotator cuff injury can help restore flexibility and strength to your shoulder. Physiotherapy is also an important part of the recovery process after rotator cuff surgery.
- Acupuncture involves inserting extremely fine needles in your skin at specific points on your body. Typically, the needles remain in place for 15 to 40 minutes. During that time they may be moved or manipulated. Because the needles are hair thin and flexible and are generally inserted superficially, most acupuncture treatments are relatively painless.
- A TENS unit delivers a tiny electrical current to key points on a nerve pathway. The current, delivered through electrodes taped to your skin, isn’t painful or harmful. It’s not known exactly how TENS works, but it’s thought that it might stimulate the release of pain-inhibiting molecules (endorphins) or block pain fibers that carry pain impulses.