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Rotator cuff injury: A Cause of Shoulder Pain

by Jane Hodgson 12 September 2008


Rotator cuff is the collective name for the four muscles that attach the scapula (shoulder blade) to the humerus (upper arm bone). As a whole the rotator cuff stabilises the shoulder joint and facilitates its movement.

How is the rotator cuff damaged?

The rotator cuff can be damaged in one of two ways:

  • Traumatic injury: Any sudden unprotected movement can tear the rotator cuff. Examples include: a fall onto the arm, or a fall where you stop yourself with your arm or a pull whilst lifting or throwing
  • Repetitive strain injury: repetitive movement undertaken for sport or work can build up to cause rotator cuff problems. The risk factor is higher when the movements are above the head or require a higher force. Sports that are commonly affected include canoeing, cricket, swimming and racquet sports. Occupations that are particularly at risk are those in the construction trades such as joiners and builders.

The risk of sustaining a rotator cuff injury increases if your posture is poor. Rounded shoulders are an indication of weak scapula muscles and may lead to pinching of the rotator cuff. Damage to the rotator cuff is more commonly sustained after the age of 40.

What are the symptoms of a rotator cuff tear?

  • Pain: usually felt over the outside and upper part of the arm. Pain is often worse when moving the arm especially overhead movements, or across the body.
  • Decreased strength in the shoulder

How is a rotator cuff injury diagnosed?

The first step in diagnosing a rotator cuff injury is the history that you give of your injury. Specific clinical tests will further isolate the site of the injury.

Rotator cuff injuries, including complete or partial rotator cuff tears do not show on normal X rays; instead, they may be diagnosed by MRI or ultrasound scanning.

What is the treatment for a rotator cuff injury?

  • Ice. See the Physiobench advice sheet
  • Physiotherapy muscle exercise programme consisting of muscle imbalance exercises, scapula stability exercises and shoulder strengthening exercises. If the muscles are not strong enough, or one part of the cuff is working harder than the rest, then the shoulder will be pulled out of alignment and pain will result. We can help with specific exercises to address this muscle imbalance.
  • Surgical intervention. If conservative measures fail, surgery is considered, and usually performed by a keyhole approach.

Personalised treatment

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Included in this price is a follow up assessment, which you can choose to take at any time within 3 months folllowing the initial assessment.

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About the author

Jane Hodgson - Chartered Physiotherapist Jane Hodgson Jane specialises in lower body injuries and has raced competitively in running, orienteering and adventure racing.

Did you know

Roatator cuff tears happen more often in people aged over 40.

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