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Rotator Cuff Injury - Types, Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Written by
Dr. Sneha Kannan
and medically reviewed by Dr. Sreenivasa Rao

Published on Nov 12, 2019 and last reviewed on Nov 16, 2019   -  4 min read



Rotator cuff injury is the damage of the tissue around the shoulder joint. This article will explain the types and symptoms of rotator cuff injury along with its causes, risk factors, treatment options, and preventive measures.

Rotator Cuff Injury - Types, Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment


The muscles and tendons that help in the movement of your shoulders are called the rotator cuff. Any injury to this group of muscles can cause a dull ache in the shoulder, which worsens with shoulder movement. This type of injury is commonly seen in athletes and people who repeatedly move their shoulders like painters and carpenters. Most people recover from this injury with the help of physiotherapy.

What Is Rotator Cuff Injury?

The group of muscles and tendons that work together to stabilize the shoulder and allow you to move it is called rotator cuff. The muscles that make the rotator cuff are:

  1. Supraspinatus muscle - It keeps the upper arm stable and helps in lifting the arm.

  2. Infraspinatus muscle - It helps in shoulder rotating action.

  3. Subscapularis muscle - It connects the upper arm to the shoulder blade and helps in rotating the shoulder.

  4. Teres minor muscle - It is the smallest muscle and also helps in rotation.


img source : rosept

These tendons get injured easily as they move in a very tight space. When you move your shoulder properly, these muscles move and help with the movement. But when you stress or strain it beyond its capacity, these muscles rub against the bony process in the shoulder bone (acromion). This results in the muscles getting injured and inflamed.

Types of Rotator Cuff Injuries:

The types of rotator cuff injury are:

  • Rotator Cuff Tendinitis - Overuse can cause inflammation of the tendons in the rotator cuff. This type of injury is commonly seen in athletes who swim or play tennis and volleyball.

  • Shoulder Bursitis - The inflammation of the bursa, which is the fluid-filled sac between the shoulder joint and rotator cuff tendons, is called shoulder bursitis.

  • Rotator Cuff Tear - The tendons, that are the fibers that connect the muscle to the bone, can tear fully or partially. It can occur from a sudden injury or due to repetitive motion. Untreated rotator cuff tendinitis can eventually lead to a tear. This causes shoulder pain, inability to move the shoulder fully, and shoulder weakness.

  • Shoulder Impingement - Shoulder impingement is when the muscles in the rotator cuff rub or impinge on the shoulder bones. It is the most common cause of shoulder pain and rotator cuff tear.

What Symptoms Does Rotator Cuff Injury Cause?

Symptoms are not seen with all types of rotator cuff injuries. Repetitive motions can gradually damage the muscles over the years. The common symptoms include:

  • Shoulder pain while performing certain activities.

  • Inability to achieve a full range of shoulder motion.

  • Inability to sleep on the affected side.

  • Severe pain while lifting your hands overhead.

  • Throbbing pain at night.

If these symptoms last for more than a week, or if you lose sensation or function of your arm, consult a doctor immediately.

What Causes Rotator Cuff Injury?

The following are the most common causes of rotator cuff injury:

  • Arthritis and patients with knee pain sit and rise from the chair by putting excess force on their arm. As their knees hurt, they take support from the chair handles. The shoulder joint is not built for this, and this results in crushing and grinding of the rotator cuff tendons.

  • Shoulder injuries from falls, accidents, and sports collisions.

  • Repetitive activities like pushups, swimming, painting a house, etc., can cause injury of the rotator cuff.

  • Sudden overhead arm movements commonly seen in athletes can result in rotator cuff tear.

Risk Factors:

Such injuries are commonly seen in:

  • People older than 40 years.

  • Athletes who play contact sports.

  • People who play tennis, baseball, and archery.

  • Painters and carpenters.

  • Some families (genetics).

How Is Rotator Cuff Injury Diagnosed?

Your doctor will press your shoulders in different areas, and he or she will tell you to perform various shoulder movements. Physical examination also tests for the strength of the rotator cuff muscles. If needed, your doctor might tell you to get the following tests:

  • X-ray - X-rays will not show a rotator cuff tear, but it is used to rule out other conditions that can cause shoulder pain like bone spurs or arthritis.

  • Ultrasound - Here, sound waves are used to produce images of muscles and tendons in the shoulder. You can also see how your muscles stretch with movements.

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) - Strong radio waves magnets are used to obtain a detailed view of all hard and soft structures in the shoulder.

How Is Rotator Cuff Injury Treated?

Most types of rotator cuff injuries get better with rest, ice compressions, and physical therapy. Surgery is indicated only in severe cases of rotator cuff tear. The treatment options include:

1) Conservative treatments - Rest the affected shoulder, apply ice, and consult a physiotherapist for physical therapies. Your doctor will prescribe painkillers and anti-inflammatory medicines.

2) Physical therapy - Exercises specially designed for this type of shoulder injury will help reduce pain and restore flexibility and strength to the shoulder.

3) Injections - If your pain did not get better with physiotherapy, the doctor might recommend getting a steroid injection directly into the shoulder joint. It is indicated for people who have pain that interferes with sleep and other activities. This only gives temporary relief.

4) Surgery - The surgeries done are:

  • Arthroscopic tendon repair - Here, the surgeon inserts an arthroscope, which is a small tube with a camera, inside the shoulder joint through small incisions, and the torn tendon is reattached.

  • Open tendon repair - Here, the surgeon makes a larger incision to visualize the joint and then reattaches the damaged tendon.

  • Tendon transfer - In case of damaged tendon, a nearby tendon is used to replace the damaged one.

  • Shoulder replacement - In severe cases, the shoulder might need replacement. An artificial joint is placed.

Preventive Measures:

For people at risk, perform shoulder stretches and strengthening exercises. Ask a fitness specialist how to perform these exercises properly.

For more information on rotator cuff injury, consult a physiotherapist online now.

Last reviewed at:
16 Nov 2019  -  4 min read




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