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Rotator Cuff Tears

A Guide to Treatment of Rotator Cuff Tears


Updated May 16, 2014

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

Rotator cuff tears are a common injury of a complicated joint. Because of our dependence on the shoulder for many activities, these injuries can be frustrating experiences. Learn more about rotator cuff tears, including diagnosis, symptoms, treatments and rehabilitation.

Causes of Shoulder Pain

shoulder pain from a rotator cuff tear
Image © Sebastian Kaulitzki
Shoulder pain is an extremely common complaint that has many causes. Because we use our arms for so many common activities, shoulder pain can cause significant problems. In order for proper treatment, the cause of the problem must be identified.

What Is the Rotator Cuff?

rotator cuff tear
Image © Medical Mulitmedia Group
The rotator cuff is the group of four tendons and muscles that surround the shoulder joint. Often confused with other names, the proper word used to describe these muscles and tendons is the rotator cuff. When the rotator cuff is injured, it's the tendons of the rotator cuff that are injured. It is these tendons that connect the rotator cuff muscles to the bone. When the tendons are inflamed or torn, they cannot function properly.

Rotator Cuff Tear Symptoms

The most common symptom of a rotator cuff problem is pain. Patients usually complain of pain over the top of the shoulder and arm. In some patients, the pain can descend down the outside of the arm all the way to the elbow.

The other common symptom of a rotator cuff tear is weakness of the shoulder. Weakness causes difficulty lifting the arm up overhead or difficulty with activities such as reaching, getting dressed, or carrying objects.

How Common is a Rotator Cuff Tear?

Rotator Cuff Tear Treatments

rotator cuff tear cortisone injection treatment
Image © Nicholas Monu
Most rotator cuff tears can be treated without surgery -- in fact, it is the small minority of patients who end up undergoing surgical treatment for a rotator cuff tear.

Non-operative rotator cuff treatments may include physical therapy, anti-inflammatory pain medications, and cortisone injections. The goal of treatment is to reduce inflammation and strengthen the uninjured muscles around the shoulder to compensate for the torn muscles.

Is Surgery Necessary for a Rotator Cuff Tear?

Photo © Lisa Eastman
Most rotator cuff tears can be treated non-surgically. However, in some patients, surgery may be recommended as a treatment option. Surgery is performed to repair the torn tendons. Determining when surgery may be appropriate depends on the type of rotator cuff tear, the patient's activity level, and the treatments that have been attempted.

Rotator Cuff Tear Surgery

There are several surgical options for treatment of a rotator cuff tear. The exact type of surgery may depend on factors including the size and location of your tear, your surgeon's preference, and the activities you want to be able to return to after surgery. Discuss with your doctor which type of surgery he or she may be recommending for treatment of your rotator cuff tear.

Rehab After Surgery

Photo © Stefan Redel
Healing from surgery for a rotator cuff tear is entirely dependent on a patient being able to perform proper rehabilitation and avoid activities that may injure the healing tendons. Rehab after rotator cuff surgery can vary widely, but there are some general principles that are true for most patient having surgery for treatment of a rotator cuff tear.
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