Are you experiencing shoulder pain? Does your shoulder hurt when you get up in the morning? Does it ache when you try to reach over your head or behind your back? If your shoulder hurts, and you are having problems lifting your arm, you likely have a problem with your rotator cuff. Rotator cuff injuries are very common and can range in severity. Despite this, most can resolve their pain through rotator cuff therapy.

What is the Rotator Cuff?

Muscles and tendons that surround and support the shoulder joint comprise your rotator cuff. Because it contains both muscles (specifically, your supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, subscapularis muscles) and tendons, it is vulnerable to a number of injuries. The cuff helps keep the head of your upper arm in its socket. Additionally, it supports your arm when you lift it overhead or when you are reaching away from your body.

Injuries to the rotator cuff can cause significant pain and loss of motion. If not treated properly the loss of motion can become permanent or surgery may be necessary to correct the problem.

What Injuries Occur in the Rotator Cuff?

Rotator cuff injuries generally fall into three categories – tendinitis, a partial tear, and a complete tear. The last sometimes, but not always, requires surgery as well as physical therapy. Surgery is more likely to be appropriate if the injury is the result of sudden trauma.

A lot of rotator cuff injuries, however, are not the result of sudden trauma. Rather, the cause is general wear and tear, repetitive action, and heavy lifting. Because of this, you are at greater risk if you work in construction, crossfit, play baseball or tennis, or engage in archery. Family history can also increase risk.

What are the Symptoms of a Rotator Cuff Injury?

The primary signs that your shoulder pain may be caused by a rotator cuff problem are:

  • A dull, aching pain deep in your shoulder.
  • Difficulty reaching over your head or behind your back, such as to comb your hair.
  • Weakness in the arm.
  • Pain when sleeping on the affected side.

Pain only during specific movements is often a result of tendinitis, which is generally caused by repetitive strain from certain movements, and thus is most common in people engaged in activities that put a strain on your shoulders.

How is Rotator Cuff Pain Treated?

The vast majority of rotator cuff injuries do not require surgery. Instead, treatment generally includes anti-inflammatory medication and physical therapy. Some people may get steroid injections if the pain is particularly severe, but a good physical therapist can help you avoid these more invasive treatments and surgery.

The therapy consists of tailored corrective exercises. You may have to avoid certain activities and take a break from your sport until your shoulder is recovered; overdoing it before full recovery is likely to make your shoulder pain worse and can cause permanent damage. A therapist may also perform joint manipulation to help keep your joints mobile and dry needling to improve muscle flexibility.

Your physical therapist may recommend that you continue to do certain stretches and exercises every day to prevent the injury from recurring. Even if you have not had a rotator cuff injury, it may be worth talking to a physical therapist if you are engaged in activities that increase your risk about exercises to help strengthen your shoulder and back to reduce the risk of injury. These rotator cuff exercises should be routine for anyone who plays tennis, crossfits, or any kind of throwing sport.

If you have shoulder pain from a rotator cuff injury, then Peak Physiotherapy and Performance can help you get back in the game. Check out our ebook “7 Ways to Ease Neck and Shoulder Pain,” or contact us to schedule a free phone consultation in which we can work out what we can do to help you return to work, normal activities, or play.

About the Author

Dr. Andrew Junak is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and Board-Certified Orthopedic Specialist. Dr. Junak received his Doctorate of Physical Therapy from Walsh University and completed his Orthopedic Specialist training at the Cleveland Clinic. He is the owner of Peak Physiotherapy and Performance, a physical therapy clinic in Canal Winchester, Ohio. He serves the local communities of Lancaster, Grove City, Blacklick, Pickerington, and Columbus. Dr. Junak is passionate about helping people solve their problems in order to get them back to doing the things they love.

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