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Each year, more than 3 million people across the country are affected by rotator cuff pain or injuries. What seems to be true is that the risk of this kind of injury increases with age:

  • At age 50, just over one in 10 adults have a rotator cuff tear visible on an MRI.
  • By age 80, around five in 10 adults have a rotator cuff tear seen on an MRI.
  • Over the age of 66, shoulder pain on one side of the body is actually an indication that there are rotator cuff injuries in both shoulders.

Rotator cuff pain and injury are not uncommon and can happen at any age, but knowing this doesn’t make it any easier if you’re personally experiencing discomfort. In this article, we’ll examine what the rotator cuff does, how injuries happen and how your physical therapist can help.

What You Need to Know About the Rotator Cuff

The name “rotator cuff” might sound a little deceiving. Thanks to the singular nature of the term, the rotator cuff seems like it would be a single thing. However, the rotator cuff is a whole group of muscles, ligaments and tendons that work together as a team to stabilize your shoulder and aid in movement and mobility. 

Each time you move your shoulder—no matter which direction—you are using your rotator cuff to move the joint and add stability.

The tendons of the rotator cuff are tough and flexible, and the muscles get used regularly in our daily activities. They support the shoulder joint, which is a shallow ball-and-socket joint that enables you to move your arm in a wide range of motion. Because of this, it means the tendons, muscles and ligaments of the rotator cuff have to work hard to support the bones through a broad range of mobility.

Since there are multiple components to the rotator cuff, each of which can be injured in a multitude of ways, this means there isn’t a specific treatment for a rotator cuff injury or discomfort in the rotator cuff; treatment would have a lot to do with which tendon or muscle is affected and the cause of the injury.

The Causes of a Rotator Cuff Injury

Rotator cuff injuries and pain can range from very mild cases to very severe, falling into one of three categories:

  • Tendonitis: This is caused by overuse and refers to inflammation of the tendons in the shoulder. 
  • Bursitis: Within the rotator cuff are fluid-filled sacs that sit between the tendons in the rotator cuff and the bone underneath. These can become inflamed, which is another very common cause of pain in the rotator cuff.
  • Strains and tears: Strains and tears of the rotator cuff muscles can happen in two ways: through overuse or an acute injury. They can overstretch or tear over time, or a rotator cuff strain or tear can happen as the result of a fall, car accident or other sudden injury, causing intense, sudden pain.

So what leads to any of these three kinds of rotator cuff injuries? Typically, it boils down to one of two causes.

  • Regular wear and tear: We use our shoulders every day, which in some cases can damage the rotator cuff. As we age, the tendons of the rotator cuff can thin and fray, and there can be a reduced blood supply to the area, which can increase the chances of wear and tear.
  • Overuse: Activities that involve using your arms above your head can cause rotator cuff issues. This includes things like tennis, swimming or house painting, but even normal motions performed for too long can stress or injure the rotator cuff.

Treating Rotator Cuff Injuries or Pain With Physical Therapy

As with many injuries, physical therapy and a professionally recommended exercise program can help you regain mobility, return to daily activities and, depending on the severity of your injury, potentially return to sports and recreation. 

Unless the injury is very severe, most people dealing with rotator cuff injuries begin to treat the injury with physical therapy. In one study, people who got physical therapy to treat their rotator cuff tear had similar success results to those who underwent surgery.

A physical therapist will examine your shoulder, do some physical mobility tests to determine the exact cause of your pain and the limitations of your injury, and learn more about your lifestyle and habits before coming up with a treatment plan. This is because each person’s rotator cuff injury is unique. 

Working with a physical therapist after a rotator cuff injury means you’re working with a trained professional who is focused on finding the best course of treatment to help you recover. A physical therapist will help you:

  • Regain your range of motion
  • Find exercises to increase your shoulder strength
  • Improve your posture to limit pain
  • Find sleeping positions that don’t harm your shoulder
  • Learn how to carry heavy objects without pain or risk of injury
  • Use ice and heat to manage your pain
  • Understand the importance of staying active through recovery
  • Find ways to perform tasks without pain or risk of further injury

Eventually, a physical therapist can help you return to your normal self (which may take a while). Regular visits with a physical therapist can also aid in your recovery if you have had to undergo surgery to repair your rotator cuff.

At South Orange Rehabilitation and Wellness, we’re passionate about finding the best course of treatment for our patients. No two bodies are alike, which means no two care plans should be alike. We’ll come up with the best course of treatment to help alleviate your pain, regain your mobility and prevent further injury.

If you’re struggling with shoulder pain, we’re here to help. Contact us today to schedule an appointment.