Rotator Cuff Tear or Injury

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What Is a Torn Rotator Cuff?

The rotator cuff refers to a group of muscles and tendons located in the shoulder joint.

Rotator cuff tear causes

Common causes of a rotator cuff tear can include:

  • Trauma to the shoulder in the form of direct blows.
  • Falling on an outstretched arm.
  • Overhead motion of the arm and rotation of the joint for an extended period.
  • Wear and tear on the tendon over time.

Types of rotator cuff tears

A torn rotator cuff can be partial or total.

  • A partial tear does not cause the rotator muscles to sever completely.
  • A total tear — also known as a full-thickness tear — completely severs the muscles to the point that they split into two different entities.

Risk factors of rotator cuff tears

A rotator cuff tear is more likely to occur under certain circumstances.

These risk factors include:

  • Playing sports, such as baseball, swimming, or tennis
  • Work or sports that stress repetitive overhead arm motion
  • Age greater than 40 years old
  • Heavy lifting
  • Weakened shoulder muscles resulting from reduced or lack of activity

Rotator cuff tear complications

If left untreated, a rotator cuff tear can severely restrict function and range of motion.

The tears can also increase over time. This may cause partial rotator cuff tears to progress to total tears.

While anti-inflammatory medications can ease your pain toward the beginning of the injury, time worsens the tear and makes these medications less effective.

Why choose UPMC Orthopaedic Care for rotator cuff tear treatment?

  • UPMC has one of the highest-funded orthopaedic research departments in the nation, with access to ongoing clinical trials, particularly useful for those seeking repair of a rotator cuff tear
  • We offer expert orthopaedic surgery services and treatments to people of all ages to help them get back to enjoying their lives.

Make an appointment for rotator cuff tears

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Torn Rotator Cuff Symptoms and Diagnosis

Rotator cuff tear symptoms

Rotator cuff tears that result from trauma — including some sort of fall or blow — will often cause intense pain and the rapid onset of symptoms.

Tears that occur over time with wear and tear may cause a slower progression of pain and related symptoms.

The most common symptoms of rotator cuff injuries include:

  • Pain with motion and at rest
  • Muscle weakness, especially when lifting or reaching
  • Popping or clicking sounds triggered by motion
  • Limited range of motion of the shoulder

Rotator cuff tear diagnosis

The assessment of a suspected torn rotator cuff is most helpful at the first sign of repeated symptoms. This allows your doctor to catch the tear before it progresses.

To diagnose a rotator cuff tear, your doctor will:

  • Gather your complete medical history, focusing on any prior shoulder and muscle injuries
  • Perform a physical exam
  • Ask you to move your shoulder while observing muscle movements and asking about pain intensity

Based on these results, you may need other tests such as:

  • X-rays using imaging techniques to examine your shoulder
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) using magnets and radio waves to create pictures of the inside of the shoulder
  • Ultrasound using sound waves to examine the rotator cuff for inflammation or tears

Make an appointment for torn rotator cuff symptoms

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Rotator Cuff Tear Treatment and Surgery

Treatment goals for rotator cuff tears

Although individually targeted based on your symptoms, treatments for rotator cuff tears aim to:

  • Prevent further tearing of the rotator cuff
  • Stabilize the shoulder joint
  • Manage pain
  • Allow you to return to your normal routine

Based on the severity of your rotator cuff injury, your doctor may choose nonsurgical or surgical treatments.

Types of treatment for torn rotator cuffs

According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgery, nonsurgical treatments for rotator cuff tears are effective in relieving pain and increasing function for 50 percent of patients.

Nonsurgical treatments generally begin with rest and immobilization.

If symptoms persist, your doctor may recommend:

  • Anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Ice or compression
  • Physical therapy

Rotator cuff surgery

If you still have rotator cuff tear symptoms — even after a regimen of nonsurgical treatments — your doctor may suggest rotator cuff repair surgery.

Factors that may make rotator cuff surgery a better option than nonsurgical treatments include the:

  • Length of symptoms
  • Size of rotator cuff tear
  • Severity of muscle weakness

The three common surgical techniques for repairing rotator cuff tears are:

  • Open repair — this method is invasive but allows your surgeon to see the scope of your shoulder muscles
  • All-arthroscopic repair — this method uses a surgical camera and guides surgical tools to make small a incision and repairs of your muscles
  • Mini-open repair — this method combines the first two strategies

Benefits and risks of rotator cuff tear treatment

Treatments for rotator cuff injuries, when implemented as quickly as possible, are generally effective in:

  • Stopping the progression of current tears
  • Rehabilitating tears
  • Preserving mobility

For these reasons, it's crucial to talk to your doctor immediately if you suspect a shoulder injury.

Following any sort of surgical treatment of your rotator cuff, you should expect a period of gradual rehabilitation.

At first, you may have to use a sling and avoid motions for four to six weeks. But, in time, you will reintroduce movement and lifting into your routine.

Make an appointment for rotator cuff tear treatment

Request an appointment with a UPMC orthopaedic surgeon:

Learn more about torn rotator cuff treatments and surgery

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UPMC's HealthBeat Blog:

From our Health Library: