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Muscles of the Rotator Cuff

Four Muscles Surround the Shoulder to Form the Rotator Cuff

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Updated June 27, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

The rotator cuff is the group of muscles and tendons that surround the shoulder joint.  The rotator cuff is important for normal shoulder mobility, strength and function.  Injuries to the rotator cuff, including rotator cuff tendonitis and rotator cuff tears, are common conditions that cause shoulder pain.

Often doctors will discuss problems in terms of the rotator cuff as a whole, or they may describe injuries to specific tendons and muscles of the cuff.  Most commonly, patients will read a copy of an MRI report that may specifically describe injury to one or more of the rotator cuff muscles or tendons.

Rotator Cuff Muscles and Tendons

rotator cuff tear
Image © Medical Mulitmedia Group

A muscle is a type of tissue that can contract to provide mobility and strength.  A tendon is the structure that connects the muscle to the bone.

In the shoulder, injury to the rotator cuff is usually within the tendon.  These tendons have a vulnerable blood supply, called a watershed, that can cause susceptibility to injury. 

Rotator cuff muscles can be damaged as well, especially in the setting of chronic rotator cuff tears when the muscles become atrophied (wasted away).  In these cases, the muscle permanently changes as a result of not being used properly.  Atrophy of the rotator cuff muscles usually means a tear in the tendon has been present for a long time and may not be repairable.

Supraspinatus Muscle & Tendon

The supraspinatus muscle is the most commonly injured rotator cuff muscle and tendon.  The supraspinatus is located directly on top of the shoulder, and the most important muscle involved with lifting the arm away from your side.

Injuries to the supraspinatus tendon often seen on an MRI include tendonitis, partial tears, and full-thickness tears (complete tears) of the tendon.

Infraspinatus Muscle & Tendon

The infraspinatus tendon is just behind the supraspinatus, and determining the beginning of one tendon and the end of the other can be difficult, they essentially blend into each other.

Larger tears of the rotator cuff often involve more than one tendon (so-called 'massive rotator cuff tears'), and the most common large tears involve the supraspinatus and the infraspinatus tendons.

Subscapularis Muscle & Tendon

The subscapularis is a tendon in the front of the shoulder.  This tendon is less commonly injured, but can cause some unique challenges when it is injured.  The motion called internal rotation of the shoulder is dependent on the subscapularis.  In addition, the subscapularis helps provide stability to the shoulder, and helps maintain normal position of the biceps tendon.

Tears of the subscapularis can be found in very large tears of the rotator cuff, and also in patients who have had recent surgery.  Often shoulder surgery is performed by entering the front of the joint, by detaching the subscapularis tendon.  Injuries during recovery can lead to tearing of the healing tendon.  This is a complication seen after shoulder replacement or open labral repair surgery.

Teres Minor Muscle & Tendon

The teres minor is the last of the rotator cuff muscles and the least commonly injured.  The teres minor is in the back of the shoulder, and involved with the movement of external rotation of the joint.  External rotation is the movement with your elbow held at your side, and your hand pushes outwards.  Usually your doctor will test this muscle with this maneuver.

Understanding MRIs

Most patients who are researching the names of the muscles and tendons have read them in an MRI report or a surgical report of their procedure.  When doctors are talking with patients, they generally refer to these structures as the rotator cuff, but more precisely they represent four distinct muscles and tendons that together provide much of the strength and mobility of our shoulder joint.

  1. About.com
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  3. Orthopedics
  4. Shoulder & Elbow
  5. Shoulder Conditions
  6. Rotator Cuff
  7. Rotator Cuff Muscles - Supraspinatus, Infraspinatus

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