The shoulder joint can be vulnerable to a number of injuries and conditions. A rotator cuff tear is a common injury that typically causes pain, stiffness, and weakness in the shoulder. This makes normal day-to-day activities difficult and painful. Read our frequently asked questions to find out more about this type of injury.
What Is the Rotator Cuff?
The rotator cuff is a group of shoulder muscles and tendons (the strong fibers that connect muscles to bones) that cover the head of the humerus (upper arm bone) to form a “cuff” over it. This keeps the humerus firmly in place within the shallow socket of the shoulder. The rotator cuff also helps to control movement and perform overhead motions, such as lifting and rotating your arm whilst keeping the shoulder joint stable and secure.
What Can Cause A Tear in the Rotator Cuff?
Direct trauma or an acute injury such as a fall or sudden shoulder movement can cause a rotator cuff tear. More frequently, however, it is caused by overuse, such as repetitive overhead motions and normal age-related wear and tear. It may also develop as a result of indirect causes such as impingement or shoulder imbalance.
Rotator cuff injuries are more common in people who play sports such as tennis or baseball (pitchers), as well as those in jobs that involve repetitive arm movements such as painters and carpenters. Tendons can degenerate and weaken over time, meaning the risk of rotator cuff damage can increase with age.
What Are the Symptoms of a Tear?
The symptoms of a rotator cuff tear caused by direct trauma usually occur suddenly. You may feel a snap, sudden pain, and weakness immediately in your arm. Routine activities such as combing your hair or reaching behind your back can become difficult. Some rotator cuff tears may not be immediately obvious and symptoms can develop gradually and often include:
- Pain in the front of your shoulder that radiates down your arm
- Pain experienced with overhead movements such as lifting or reaching
- Pain that increases over time and may be present when resting
- Shoulder stiffness and/or soreness
- Weakness or a loss of mobility in your shoulder and/or arm
- A clicking or popping noise when moving your arm
- Pain when trying to sleep on the affected side
How Is This Type of Injury Diagnosed?
If you have a shoulder injury or have chronic shoulder and arm pain, you should see an orthopedic doctor for diagnosis and the appropriate treatment. Your orthopedic doctor will assess your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical examination. Diagnostic imaging, such as MRI and ultrasound, may be required to confirm the diagnosis and assess the level of damage.
Can A Rotator Cuff Tear Heal Without Surgery?
Even though most tears cannot heal on their own, restored function and strength can often be achieved without the need for surgery. Depending on the severity of the injury, your orthopedic doctor will be able to advise on the best course of treatment. Non-surgical treatment methods can include rest, activity restriction, ice therapy, anti-inflammatory and pain medication, steroid injections, and physical therapy.
Why Might I Need Surgery?
A rotator cuff tear can lengthen or get worse over time, especially with repetitive use or a re-injury. Surgery is recommended when non-surgical treatments have been unsuccessful. It may be recommended for painful or acute tears and for people who rely on their arm strength for work or sports.
What Surgery Is Performed?
The type of surgical repair is based on the size, shape, and location of the tear. A partial tear may only require a debridement procedure, but more severe tears may require repair surgery. Common surgical approaches for repair surgery include arthroscopic repair, open surgical repair, and mini-open repair.
How Long Is Recovery After Surgery?
Recovery time can vary depending on the extent of the injury and the type of surgery, but most individuals achieve good results and regain functional movement and strength with rehabilitation in about 4 to 6 months following rotator cuff repair surgery.
Shoulder Specialist in Northern New Jersey
If you’re suffering from a shoulder injury or condition, visit a shoulder or sports medicine doctor at Tri-County Orthopedics for the professional treatment you deserve. Our board-certified orthopedic experts are highly skilled in treating a vast variety of orthopedic conditions and injuries and understand that proper diagnosis is paramount in determining the most effective treatment for your unique needs.
If you would like to book a consultation with one of our shoulder specialists or to find out more about the services we provide, call us at (973) 538-2334, or you can request an appointment online. We have five convenient locations across northern New Jersey.