Torn Rotator Cuff: Causes, Symptoms, And Treatment

Are you an athlete who has been dealing with a nagging pain in your shoulder? If so, you may have a torn rotator cuff.

What does the rotator cuff do?

The rotator cuff has an important job-- it attaches the arm to the shoulder. It consists of several muscles: the teres minor, the infraspinatus, the supraspinatus, and the subscapularis. The rotator cuff also includes multiple tendons.

The muscles and tendons that make up the rotator cuff can become torn as a result of trauma or repeated stress. The injury is common amongst those who play tennis, basketball, or any other sport involving repetitive motion of the upper body. Typically the injury occurs over time-- say after a period of a couple months where you find yourself playing tennis often. Alternatively, the rotator cuff can tear as a result of a fall. The injury is more common in those over the age of 40, as well.

What are the symptoms of a torn rotator cuff?

Symptoms of a torn rotator cuff include deep pain in the shoulder area, stiffness, swelling, and weakness in the shoulder and arm. You may find that you have difficulty sleeping, as the pain from this injury is usually worse at night. If the injury is chronic-- meaning it occurred over time-- you may notice symptoms that get progressively worse as time goes on. If the injury happened suddenly as a result of a fall or an accident, the symptoms will likely be more intense from the start.

How is it diagnosed?

A torn rotator cuff is diagnosed through a physical examination from your doctor. They will test your range of motion and strength. To confirm the diagnosis, your doctor may order additional tests. An x-ray can help rule out other causes for your pain, and an MRI can actually show the tear itself.

How is it treated?

Treatment for a torn rotator cuff depends on the severity of the injury and the age of the patient. Kids, younger adults, and those with only a minor tear may be able to get away with resting the shoulder, along with taking anti-inflammatory medication and icing it regularly. Steroid injections and physical therapy may also be used if the initial rest period doesn't heal the tear.

If more conservative treatment options fail, surgery is often necessary. Arthroscopic tendon repair involves reattaching the tendon to the bone using several tiny incisions and a small camera to allow your surgeon to see into your shoulder. Open tendon repair is similar, however the surgeon uses one large incision instead of multiple small ones. In severe cases, your orthopaedic surgeon may even suggest a total shoulder replacement.

Rotator cuff injuries are common and treatable, but they are much easier to treat if caught early. Talk to your doctor as soon as possible if you suspect you may have torn your rotator cuff.