What Is A Rotator Cuff?

The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that work together to join the bone in your upper arm to your shoulder blade. The name comes from the cuff-like structure that the tendons form around the upper arm bone to hold your arm bone in place and the muscles that allow the shoulder to rotate.

What Is A Rotator Cuff Tear?

A rotator cuff tear is an injury to those muscles and tendons. That injury could be an actual tear in one of the tendons or muscles, the detachment of a tendon from the shoulder blade, or it could be simple swelling. Either way, it isn’t any fun. Rotator cuff tears are very common because our shoulders are particularly prone to wear and tear.

How Do You Tear Your Rotator Cuff?

The short answer? By using it. The fragility of the joint and the fact that we use our shoulder joints in almost everything we do combine to create a sort of perfect storm for injuries. Most of the time rotator cuff tears happen because a person has been putting a lot of extra or prolonged stress on the shoulder joint.

What Causes A Rotator Cuff Tear?

We covered the basics of this above, but here are a few more details on tears that are more severe. Most of the time, a rotator cuff tear happens because someone has been doing some heavy lifting, performing overhead activities, or because they have fallen onto their shoulder. For example, athletes who play sports involving repetitive movement at the shoulder such as golf, baseball and tennis can injure their rotator cuff. Older people are also more prone to rotator cuff injuries because, as we’ve said, this specific joint is fragile and especially susceptible to wear and tear.

How Will You Know If You’ve Torn Your Rotator Cuff?

The most obvious sign of a tear in your rotator cuff is the pain. Because these injuries can develop and worsen over time, the pain might not be noticeable at first. The amount of pain you feel will depend on the severity of the tear. Some have reported hearing a “crackling” or a “snapping” sound when they move their arms or shoulders. Weakness—you’ll notice this when you try to lift something and not being able to raise your arms above your head without feeling pain are other signs of injury. Typically the pain is more severe at night and may be enough to rob you of a restful sleep.

If the injury happens suddenly or is severe, however, it will likely hurt right away and that pain will definitely be noticeable.

How Much Will A Torn Rotator Cuff Impact My Life?

You will have continued, varying levels of pain along with annoyance at having to do everyday tasks one-handed. You may have to work with a physical therapist and you might even need surgery (though this is rare).

What To Do If You Think You’ve Injured Your Rotator Cuff

We say this in every article but it bears repeating: if you think you’ve injured your rotator cuff, stop what you’re doing and make an appointment with your doctor. This is especially important if the injury is sudden or if the pain is severe; it is always best to get an official diagnosis. Once you’ve been properly diagnosed by your doctor, you can set up a treatment plan.

The Healing Process

The very best thing you can do if you have a rotator cuff injury is to rest the joint as much as possible. You don’t necessarily have to take to your bed, but you’ll want to avoid moving the injured arm/shoulder as much as you can. You might find it helpful to use a sling. Ice your shoulder a few times a day. If it is especially painful, you can take over the counter anti-inflammatories. Once you get the okay from your doctor, you can start doing strength building and stretching exercises to re-strengthen the joint.

Obviously the above advice may only work if you have a mild degree of sprain or tear. The problem is that it is very difficult to rest the shoulder completely for an extended period of time. By doing this, you run the risk of developing stiffness, which will only worsen the situation. Likewise, there is a delicate balance to be achieved.

Dealing With Severity

As we’ve mentioned, most rotator cuff injuries are the result of regular wear and tear. If the injury is severe, however (like if one of your tendons has been severed from the shoulder blade), you'll likely be recommend to have surgery. Surgery brings its own challenges, including failed repairs and a long, painful rehabilitation process.

Alternatives To Surgery

One of the new promising alternatives to traditional surgery is stem cell therapy. Unlike surgery, stem cell therapy is a minimally invasive procedure. This treatment actually regenerates the rotator cuff, in an attempt to get it as close to its natural state as possible. You’ll go into the clinic, your own stem cells are harvested and then injected at the site of your injury. No incisions, no scars and, no lengthy recovery time. You’ll be able to go home right away. Many patients have noticed marked improvements in their ability to do things within a few days.

Bartolo Colon, for example, used stem cell therapy after having rotator cuff surgery because he wasn’t healing properly and was struggling to build his strength back up. After his stem cell treatment, he went on to compile “a 6–4 record with a 3.20 ERA before the All-Star break.” (That’s really good for those of you who don’t speak sports!)

Frequently Asked Questions About Rotator Cuff Tears

Q: What’s the best way to diagnose a rotator cuff tear?

Seeing a doctor for a professional evaluation. Do not self-diagnose!

Q: Can a rotator cuff tear be seen on an X-ray?

No, because X-Rays don’t pick up soft tissues. You’ll have more luck with an MRI.

Q: What’s the best position to sleep with a rotator cuff tear?

Lie on your back and prop up your injured shoulder by placing a pillow under your arm and hand. This maximizes blood flow to your injury to help it heal faster.

Q: Can a rotator cuff heal on its own?

Minor sprains and injuries may, if you can rest the joint enough, heal on their own. However given their nature, most tears require some form of treatment plan focused on getting the tendons and muscles healthy.

Q: Can physical therapy help a rotator cuff tear?

Sometimes. Talk to your doctor about this option.

Q: Can you live with a rotator cuff tear?

Technically, yes, but if the tear is severe, life will be miserable.

Q: What’s the difference between a rotator cuff tear and frozen shoulder?

The rotator cuff is the action and the frozen shoulder is the reaction.

Q: Do rotator cuffs always require surgery?

No. Talk to a doctor to get recommended treatment options for your injury. Explore other non-surgical treatments that will get you on the road to recovery more quickly.

Q: How long does it take a rotator cuff to heal?

That is going to depend on the extent of the tear and how diligent you are about caring for the injury as it heals.

Discover how our minimally invasive, regenerative, stem cell treatment can reduce your pain, encourage your rotator cuff to repair itself naturally, and get you back to living life the way you want.