How to Tell If You’re Suffering from a Rotator Cuff Injury

Your shoulder joint is the most flexible, agile, and mobile joint in your body, which means it’s more vulnerable to injuries and excessive wear than other joints. If you’re experiencing new or persistent shoulder pain, the problem may stem from any of several possible conditions.

At Coastal Ortho in El Segundo and Torrance, California, we diagnose and treat all kinds of shoulder problems, and one of the most common injuries our orthopedic specialists see is a rotator cuff tear. Here, we explain exactly what that means and how to tell if it’s happened to you.

Shoulder anatomy

Your shoulder contains a ball-and-socket joint, meaning the ball end of your upper arm bone (humerus) fits into the socket of your shoulder blade or scapula (glenoid cavity). The ball is bigger than the socket, which gives you a wide range of motion, but it also gives you a greater chance of instability.

To keep the bones together and the joint stable, you have a set of tendons and muscles that form a unit called the rotator cuff. Under normal circumstances, your rotator cuff is up to the task of holding your shoulder joint in place. But overuse injuries and traumatic accidents can cause it to tear — a painful condition that plagues about 2 million Americans every year. 

How rotator cuff tears happen

Shoulder pain often stems from acute and chronic conditions like arthritis, tendonitis, bursitis, instability, fractures, and dislocation. But it could also be the result of a rotator cuff tear, or a rupturing of the tendons that hold your shoulder joint in place. 

Abnormal shoulder anatomy can lead to rotator cuff tears. If the bony extension of your shoulder blade (acromion) has an odd shape that reduces the amount of space between it and your rotator cuff, it can rub against the muscles and tendons and create a shoulder impingement. Over time, this can lead to a rotator cuff tear.

The most common causes of a rotator cuff tear, however, involve falling with your arm outstretched, lifting a heavy weight with a jerking motion, or making repetitive overhead movements like serving a tennis ball, pitching a baseball, or painting a wall. 

Some sports and activities build up certain shoulder muscles disproportionately, causing them to overpower the other muscles surrounding the rotator cuff. This creates an unstable joint environment that can set the stage for a rotator cuff tear. 

As you age, the blood supply to your shoulder joint also decreases. This means your shoulder doesn’t heal and recover as quickly as it once did, leaving you more susceptible to rotator cuff injuries. Even routine activities can wear down the tissues in your shoulder and gradually compromise the muscles and tendons over time, making a rotator cuff tear more likely as you get older.

Could it be a rotator cuff tear?

The best way to know for sure if you have a rotator cuff tear is to come see our specialists at Coastal Ortho. We use the most advanced imaging technology to accurately diagnose your injury so we can get you started on the right treatment as soon as possible.

In the meantime, here are some signs that you may have a rotator cuff tear:

  • Persistent shoulder pain, even when you’re at rest
  • Shoulder pain that gets worse when you lift your arm
  • Audible popping or grinding sounds when you move your shoulder
  • Arm weakness and/or limited shoulder mobility
  • Pain or discomfort when you sleep on your injured shoulder

If you have a severe rotator cuff tear, you may not be able to lift your arm at all. 

How to help your rotator cuff heal

The proper treatment for your rotator cuff depends on several factors, including the severity of the injury, your age, your activity level, and your symptoms.

In many cases, rest and inflammation reduction are all that’s needed to promote healing. We may have you wear a sling for a while to keep your shoulder immobile. Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can keep the inflammation down, which reduces pain and helps you heal.

If you need next-level pain relief, we may recommend a corticosteroid injection to deliver anti-inflammatory medication and a local anesthetic directly to the injury site.

Once healing has progressed, physical therapy helps you rehabilitate your shoulder and restore strength to the supporting structures so you can avoid recurrent rotator cuff injuries. 

Severe rotator cuff tears may require surgical intervention. In this case, we perform minimally invasive arthroscopic surgery when possible to minimize tissue damage and foster a quicker recovery.

To find out if your shoulder pain is due to a rotator cuff tear, call us today or book an appointment online any time.