The “rotator cuff” is a group of 4 muscles that are responsible for keeping the shoulder joint stable. Unfortunately, injuries to the rotator cuff are very common, either from injury or with repeated overuse of the shoulder. Injuries to the rotator cuff can vary as a person ages. Rotator cuff tears are more common later in life, but they also can occur in younger people. Athletes and heavy laborers are commonly affected; older adults also can injure the rotator cuff when they fall or strain the shoulder, such as when walking a dog that pulls on the leash. When left untreated, this injury can cause severe pain and a decrease in the ability to use the arm.
The “rotator cuff” is a group of 4 muscles and their tendons (which attach them to the bone). These muscles connect the upper-arm bone, or humerus, to the shoulder blade. The important job of the rotator cuff is to keep the shoulder joint stable. Sometimes, the rotator cuff becomes inflamed or irritated due to heavy lifting, repetitive arm movements, or a fall. A rotator cuff tearoccurs when injuries to the muscles or tendons cause tissue damage or disruption.
Rotator cuff tears are called either “full-thickness” or partial-thickness,” depending on how severe they are. Full-thickness tears extend from the top to the bottom of a rotator cuff muscle/tendon. Partial-thickness tears affect at least some portion of a rotator cuff muscle/tendon, but do not extend all the way through.
Tears often develop as a result of either a traumatic event or long-term overuse of the shoulder. These conditions are commonly called acute or chronic:
People with chronic rotator cuff injuries often have a history of rotator cuff tendon irritation that causes shoulder pain with movement. This condition is known as shoulder impingement syndrome (SIS).
Rotator cuff tears also may occur in combination with injuries or irritation of the biceps tendon at the shoulder, or with labral tears (to the ring of cartilage at the shoulder joint).
Rotator cuff tears can cause:
The injured arm often feels heavy, weak, and painful. In severe cases, tears may keep you from doing your daily activities or even raising your arm. People with rotator cuff tears often are unable to lift the arm to reach high shelves or reach behind their backs to tuck in a shirt or blouse, pull out a wallet, or fasten a bra.
Your physical therapist will review your health history, perform a thorough examination, and conduct a series of tests designed specifically to help pinpoint the cause of your shoulder pain.
Physical therapists perform specialized tests–such as the Hawkins-Kennedy impingement test, Neer’s impingement sign, and the external rotation lag sign– to diagnose an impingement or a tear. For instance, your therapist may raise your arm, move your arm out to the side, or raise your arm and ask you to resist a force, all at specific angles of elevation. These tests may cause you to feel some temporary discomfort, but don’t worry—that’s normal and part of what helps the therapist identify the exact source of your problem.
In some cases, the results of these tests might indicate the need for a referral to an orthopedist or for imaging tests, such as ultrasound imaging, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or computed tomography (CT).
Once a rotator cuff injury has been diagnosed, you will work with your orthopedist and physical therapist to decide if you should have surgery or if you can try to manage your recovery without surgery. If you don’t have surgery, your therapist will work with you to restore your range of motion, muscle strength, and coordination, so that you can return to your regular activities. In some cases, your therapist may help you learn to modify your physical activity so that you put less stress on your shoulder. If you decide to have surgery, your therapist can help you both before and after the procedure.
Regardless of which treatment you have—physical therapy only, or surgery and physical therapy—early treatment can help speed up healing and avoid permanent damage.
If a rotator cuff tear is suspected following a trauma, seek the attention of a physical therapist or other health care provider to rule out the possibility of serious life- or limb-threatening conditions. Once serious injury is ruled out, your physical therapist will help you manage your pain and will prepare you for the best course of treatment.
A physical therapist can help manage the symptoms of chronic rotator cuff tears as well as improve how your shoulder works. For large rotator cuff tears that can’t be fully repaired, physical therapists can teach special strategies to improve shoulder movement.
Once a full-thickness rotator cuff tear develops, you may need surgery to restore use of the shoulder or decrease painful symptoms. Physical therapy is an important part of the recovery process. The repaired rotator cuff is vulnerable to reinjury following shoulder surgery, so it’s important to work with a physical therapist to safely regain full use of the injured arm. After the surgical repair, you will need to wear a sling to keep your shoulder and arm protected as the repair heals. Once you are able to remove the sling for exercise, the physical therapist will begin your exercise program.
Your physical therapist will design a treatment program based on both the findings of the evaluation and your personal goals. He or she will guide you through your postsurgical rehabilitation, which will progress from gentle range-of-motion and strengthening exercises and ultimately to activity- or sport-specific exercises. Your treatment program most likely will include a combination of exercises to strengthen the rotator cuff and other muscles that support the shoulder joint. Your therapist will instruct you in how to use therapeutic resistance bands. The timeline for your recovery will vary depending on the surgical procedure and your general state of health, but full return to sports, heavy lifting, and other strenuous activities might not begin until 4 months after surgery. Your shoulder will be very susceptible to reinjury, so it is extremely important to follow the postoperative instructions provided by your surgeon and physical therapist.
Physical therapy after your shoulder surgery is essential to restore your shoulder’s function. Your rehabilitation will typically be divided into 4 phases:
A physical therapist can help you decrease your risk of developing or worsening a rotator cuff tear, especially if you seek assistance at the first sign of shoulder pain or discomfort. To avoid developing or progressing to a rotator cuff tear from an existing shoulder impingement, it is imperative to avoid future exacerbations. Your physical therapist can help you strengthen your rotator cuff muscles, train you to avoid potentially harmful positions, and determine when it is appropriate for you to return to your normal activities.
Over the past 3 weeks, Jonathan has felt pain in his shoulder while repainting his house. Now, every time he raises his arm overhead, it hurts. He notices that the pain has been steadily getting worse.
What should he do?
Jonathan has stopped reaching overhead to paint and puts ice on his shoulder in the evening. But he still feels pain and stiffness in the area, and he can’t move his arm without pain or weakness. He contacts his physical therapist, who prescribes exercises to strengthen his rotator cuff muscles and improve postural habits, and provides education to avoid exacerbating activities.
This story was based on a real-life case. Your case may be different. Your physical therapist will tailor a treatment program to your specific case.
All physical therapists are prepared through education and experience to treat patients who have a rotator cuff tear, but you may want to consider:
You can find physical therapists who have these and other credentials by using Find a PT, the online tool built by the American Physical Therapy Association to help you search for physical therapists with specific clinical expertise in your geographic area.
General tips when you’re looking for a physical therapist (or any other health care provider):
The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) believes that consumers should have access to information that could help them make health care decisions and also prepare them for their visit with their health care provider.
APTA has determined that the following articles provide some of the best scientific evidence for how to treat rotator cuff tears. The articles report recent research and give an overview of the standards of practice for treatment both in the United States and internationally. The article titles are linked either to a PubMed* abstract of the article or to free access of the full article, so that you can read it or print out a copy to bring with you to your health care provider.
APTA has determined that the following articles provide some of the best scientific evidence for how to treat rotator cuff tear. The articles report recent research and give an overview of the standards of practice for treatment both in the United States and internationally. The article titles are listed by year and are linked either to a PubMed* abstract of the article or to free access of the full article, so that you can read it or print out a copy to bring with you to your health care provider.
Longo UG, Franceschi F, Berton A, et al. Conservative treatment and rotator cuff tear progression. Med Sport Sci. 2012;57:90–99.Article Summary on PubMed.
Düzgün I, Baltacı G, Atay OA. Comparison of slow and accelerated rehabilitation protocol after arthroscopic rotator cuff repair: pain and functional activity.Acta Orthop Traumatol Turc. 2011;45:23–33. Free Article.
Pedowitz RA, Yamaguchi K, Ahmad CS, et al. Optimizing the management of rotator cuff problems.J Am Acad Orthop Surg. 2011;19:368–379. Article Summary on PubMed.
Parsons BO, Gruson KI, Chen DD, et al. Does slower rehabilitation after arthroscopic rotator cuff repair lead to long-term stiffness?J Shoulder Elbow Surg. 2010;19:1034-1039. Article Summary on PubMed.
Oh JH, Kim SH, Ji HM, et al. Prognostic factors affecting anatomic outcome of rotator cuff repair and correlation with functional outcome. Arthroscopy. 2009;25:30-39. Article Summary on PubMed.
Millar AL, Lasheway PA, Eaton W, Christensen F. A retrospective, descriptive study of shoulder outcomes in outpatient physical therapy.J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2006;36:403–414. Article Summary on PubMed.
*PubMed is a free online resource developed by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). PubMed contains millions of citations to biomedical literature, including citations in the National Library of Medicine’s MEDLINE database.
Authored by Charles Thigpen, PhD, PT, ATC and Lane Bailey, PT, DPT, CSCS. Reviewed by the MoveForwardPT.com editorial board.
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