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Rotator Cuff Injury

What is a rotator cuff injury?

Your rotator cuff consists of muscles and tendons that hold your shoulder in place. It is one of the most important parts of your shoulder.


Your rotator cuff allows you to lift your arms and reach up Each year, millions of people in the U.S. go to their healthcare providers because of a rotator cuff problem. A rotator cuff tear is a common cause of pain and disability among adults.

What causes a rotator cuff injury?

There are 2 main causes of rotator cuff tears: injury and degeneration. An injury to the rotator cuff, such as a tear, may happen suddenly when falling on an outstretched hand. It may also develop over time due to repetitive activities. Rotator cuff tears may also happen due to aging, with degeneration of the tissues.


What are the symptoms of rotator cuff tear?

Symptoms may be a bit different for each person. Symptoms may include:

  • Pain that keeps coming back, especially when doing certain things such as lifting over your head

  • Pain that prevents you from sleeping on your injured side

  • Grating or cracking sounds when moving your arm

  • Limited ability to move your arm

  • Muscle weakness

The symptoms of a rotator cuff tear may seem like other conditions or health problems. Always talk with your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is a rotator cuff injury diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will take a complete health history and do a physical exam. You may also have diagnostic tests such as:

  • X-ray. This test uses invisible electromagnetic energy beams to make images of internal tissues, bones, and organs onto film.

  • MRI. This test uses a combination of large magnets, radiofrequencies, and a computer to make detailed images of organs and structures within the body.

MRI Scan
MRI Scan

A rotator cuff may tear partly or fully. Partial-thickness tears do not completely remove the tendon from the shoulder.

How is a rotator cuff injury treated?

Treatment will depend on your symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is.

Treatment may include:

  • Rest

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)

  • Strengthening and stretching exercises

  • Ultrasound therapy

  • Corticosteroid shot (injection)

  • Surgery (for severe injuries or tears)


When should I call my healthcare provider?

Call your healthcare provider if:

  • Your pain gets worse or starts to interfere with your normal activities or ability to sleep well

  • You can’t use your shoulder as much as you were able to previously

Key points about rotator cuff injury

  • Your rotator cuff is one of the most important parts of your shoulder. It allows you to lift your arms and reach up.

  • There are 2 main causes of rotator cuff tears: injury and degeneration.

  • Symptoms may include pain that keeps coming back, muscle weakness, limited ability to move your arm, and grating or cracking sounds when moving your arm.

  • Treatment may include rest, medicine, strengthening and stretching exercises, and surgery.

  • Call your healthcare provider if pain gets worse or you can't use your arm like you used to.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.

  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.

  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.

  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.

  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.

  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.

  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.

  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.

  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.

Online Medical Reviewer: Kenny Turley PA-C
Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Thomas N Joseph MD
Date Last Reviewed: 5/1/2019
© 2000-2021 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.