Rotator Cuff Tear Symptoms: 5 Signs of a Torn Rotator Cuff
Shoulder pain can be highly limiting and uncomfortable, especially if you are an athlete. However, a more significant concern is the possibility that your shoulder pain is a sign of a rotator cuff injury or tear. The rotator cuff is a structure in your shoulders that stabilizes the joint and allows you to raise your arms and reach upwards.
Rotator cuff tears have two primary causes: degeneration or injury. Degeneration refers to the weakening of the rotator cuff due to aging or repetitive shoulder movements. Injuries tearing the rotator cuff can occur with lifting, a fall on the shoulder or an accident where the arm is pulled.
Rotator cuff tendon tears may cause loss of function, weakness and significant pain. Studies show that rotator cuff tendon tears occur in athletes and with aging, affecting 15–20% of 60-year-olds, 26–30% of 70-year-olds, and 36–50% of 80-year-olds.
Although these injuries may happen gradually, becoming familiar with rotator cuff tear symptoms can help you determine whether or not you may have a rotator cuff tear and need to see a doctor.
What is the Rotator Cuff?
The rotator cuff is an essential and complex set of muscles and tendons that help you move your shoulder. It stabilizes the arm bone (humerus) and keeps the ball (humeral head) in the socket (glenoid) as you move and lift your arm.
The rotator cuff helps us perform everything from simple tasks like washing dishes, taking things out of the trash or brushing our hair, to more strenuous activities like lifting heavy objects or throwing a ball overhead. A rotator cuff injury is a painful condition that can occur when one of the muscles and tendons in the shoulder becomes torn. When this occurs, surgery is required to repair it by properly reattaching it to the humerus.
Causes of Rotator Cuff Tear
There are several causes of rotator cuff tears, which include:
- Poor posture or technique while lifting or moving objects.
- Overuse injuries during repetitive motions such as throwing, lifting weights, or playing sports like tennis or volleyball.
- Injury from a fall or other accident.
- An injury sustained during a sports game or any other activity involving sudden movement, a pull on the arm, or acute impact on the shoulder area.
Risk Factors for Developing Rotator Cuff Tears
The following factors increase the possibility of sustaining a rotator cuff tear.
- Sports: Participating in sporting activities that require repetitive shoulder movements, like weightlifting, baseball, tennis or volleyball, increases the possibility of developing a rotator cuff tear.
- Specific jobs: People in occupations that require repetitive shoulder movements can damage their rotator cuff gradually. This includes jobs like house painting or carpentry.
- Age: The tendency to develop a rotator cuff injury increases with age and is especially common in individuals older than 50.
What Are the Warning Signs of A Rotator Cuff Tear?
The following are common symptoms/warning signs of a rotator cuff tear to look out for when experiencing shoulder pain.
- Dull, aching pain in the shoulder: This pain may worsen when you sleep on the affected shoulder, which can keep you awake. This happens because the shoulder tendons can’t glide smoothly inside the joint during sleep, causing inflammation and pain.
- Pain and weakness while lifting the arm above shoulder level: This weakening can range from mild to severe, depending on the extent of the rotator cuff injury.
- Difficulty lifting objects: A rotator cuff injury is especially evident while trying to lift heavy objects. Over time, without proper care, this difficulty may worsen, causing pain even when lifting light objects.
- Loss of range of motion and shoulder joint stiffness: Loss of range of motion is caused by damage to the tendons and muscles around the shoulder joint due to overuse or injury. You might also experience a crackling sensation or a popping noise with movement. This sound comes from the torn tendon snapping into place as it moves through the joint capsule during specific movements.
- If the shoulder pain persists after a few days of resting and taking over-the-counter medications, it may be a sign of a more severe rotator cuff injury.
What Should I Do if I Have a Rotator Cuff Injury?
If you suspect you have a rotator cuff injury, it’s important to seek medical attention from an orthopedic shoulder expert as soon as possible. Your doctor will perform an exam and will order an X-ray or MRI to diagnose the injury and inform a treatment plan. In the meantime, there are some steps you can take at home to improve your comfort:
- Rest from activities involving the shoulder that cause pain, and seek medical attention if pain persists beyond two weeks.
- Take over-the-counter pain medication to help control pain and swelling symptoms.
- Use ice packs or cold compresses on the area for 15-20 minutes at a time, several times a day.
- Try to avoid wearing a sling as this can lead to a frozen shoulder.
Treatment options will depend on your age, general health and the level of tear as determined by an orthopedic specialist. Minor rotator cuff strains don’t require surgery but if it is torn away from the bone, surgery may be required to reattach the rotator cuff tendon to the upper arm bone (humerus).
Getting Care at G2 Orthopedics
As a fellowship-trained knee, shoulder, and sports medicine specialist, Dr Goradia is very familiar with these injuries and can detect a rotator cuff tear via a series of examinations and tests. When you visit the office, Dr Goradia will discuss your symptoms and the circumstances around the time when they first appeared. Upon diagnosing the injury, he may recommend a variety of treatment options, ranging from noninvasive methods like physical therapy to strengthen the muscles and improve your range of motion, to arthroscopic surgical intervention for more serious injuries.
Rotator cuff injuries can lead to constant pain, permanent loss of motion, and shoulder weakness without proper care and treatment.
Are you experiencing rotator cuff tear symptoms?