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Rotator cuff problems

Swimmer's shoulder; Pitcher's shoulder; Shoulder impingement syndrome; Tennis shoulder; Tendinitis - rotator cuff; Rotator cuff tendinitis; Shoulder overuse syndrome

 

The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that attach to the bones of the shoulder joint, allowing the shoulder to move and keeping it stable.

  • Rotator cuff tendinitis refers to irritation of these tendons and inflammation of the bursa (a normally smooth layer) lining these tendons.
  • A rotator cuff tear occurs when one of the tendons is torn from the bone from overuse or injury.

Causes

 

The shoulder joint is a ball and socket type joint. The top part of the arm bone (humerus) forms a joint with the shoulder blade (scapula). The rotator cuff holds the head of the humerus into the scapula. It also controls movement of the shoulder joint.

TENDINITIS

The tendons of the rotator cuff pass underneath a bony area on their way to attaching the top part of the arm bone. When these tendons become inflamed, they can become frayed over this area during shoulder movements. Sometimes, a bone spur narrows the space even more.

Rotator cuff tendinitis is also called impingement syndrome. Causes of this condition include:

  • Keeping the arm in the same position for long periods, such as doing computer work or hairstyling
  • Sleeping on the same arm each night
  • Playing sports requiring the arm to be moved overhead repeatedly such as in tennis, baseball (particularly pitching), swimming, and lifting weights overhead
  • Working with the arm overhead for many hours or days, such as in painting and carpentry
  • Poor posture over many years
  • Aging
  • Rotator cuff tears

TEARS

Rotator cuff tears may occur in two ways:

  • A sudden acute tear may happen when you fall on your arm while it is stretched out. Or it can occur after a sudden, jerking motion when you try to lift something heavy.
  • A chronic tear of the rotator cuff tendon occurs slowly over time. It is more likely when you have chronic tendinitis or impingement syndrome. At some point, the tendon wears down and tears.

There are two types of rotator cuff tears:

  • A partial tear occurs when a tear does not completely sever the attachments to the bone.
  • A complete, full thickness tear means that the tear goes all the way through the tendon. It may be as small as a pinpoint, or the tear may involve the entire tendon. With complete tears, the tendon has come off (detached) from where it was attached to the bone. This kind of tear does not heal on its own.

 

Symptoms

 

TENDINITIS

Early on, pain is mild and occurs with overhead activities and lifting your arm to the side. Activities include brushing your hair, reaching for objects on shelves, or playing an overhead sport.

Pain is more likely in the front of the shoulder and may travel to the side of the arm. The pain always stops before the elbow. If the pain goes down the arm to the elbow and hand, this may indicate a pinched nerve in the neck.

There may also be pain when you lower the shoulder from a raised position.

Over time, there may be pain at rest or at night, such as when lying on the affected shoulder. You may have weakness and loss of motion when raising the arm above your head. Your shoulder can feel stiff with lifting or movement. It may become more difficult to place the arm behind your back.

ROTATOR CUFF TEARS

The pain with a sudden tear after a fall or injury is usually intense. Right after the injury, you will likely have weakness of the shoulder and arm. It may be hard to move your shoulder or raise your arm above the shoulder. You may also feel snapping when trying to move the arm.

With a chronic tear, you often do not notice when it began. This is because symptoms of pain, weakness, and stiffness or loss of motion worsen slowly over time.

Rotator cuff tendon tears often cause pain at night. The pain may even wake you. During the day, the pain is more tolerable, and usually only hurts with certain movements.

Over time, the symptoms become much worse, and are not relieved by medicines, rest, or exercise.

 

Exams and Tests

 

A physical examination may reveal tenderness over the shoulder. Pain may occur when the shoulder is raised overhead. There is usually weakness of the shoulder when it is placed in certain positions.

X-rays of the shoulder may show a bone spur or change in the position of the shoulder.

Your doctor may order other tests:

  • An ultrasound test uses sound waves to create an image of the shoulder joint. It can show a tear in the rotator cuff.
  • MRI of the shoulder may show swelling or a tear in the rotator cuff.
  • With a joint x-ray (arthrogram), the doctor injects contrast material (dye) into the shoulder joint. Then an x-ray, CT scan, or MRI scan is used to take a picture of it. Contrast is usually used when your doctor suspects a small rotator cuff tear.

 

Treatment

 

Follow your doctor's instructions on how to take care of your rotator cuff problem at home. Doing so can help relieve your symptoms so that you can return to sports or other activities.

TENDINITIS

Your doctor will likely advise you to rest your shoulder and avoid activities that cause pain. Other measures include:

  • Ice packs applied 20 minutes at a time, 3 to 4 times a day to the shoulder (protect the skin by wrapping the ice pack in a clean towel before applying)
  • Taking medicines, such as ibuprofen and naproxen, to help reduce swelling and pain
  • Avoiding or reducing activities that cause or worsen your symptoms
  • Physical therapy to stretch and strengthen the shoulder muscles
  • Medicine (corticosteroid) injected into the shoulder to reduce pain and swelling
  • Surgery (arthroscopy) to remove inflamed tissue and part of the bone over the rotator cuff to relieve pressure on the tendons

TEARS

Rest and physical therapy may help with a partial tear if you do not normally place a lot of demand on your shoulder.

Surgery to repair the tendon may be needed if the rotator cuff has a complete tear. Surgery may also be needed if the symptoms do not get better with other treatment. Most of the time, arthroscopic surgery can be used. Large tears may need open surgery (surgery with a larger incision) to repair the torn tendon.

 

Outlook (Prognosis)

 

With rotator cuff tendinitis, rest, exercise and other self-care measures often improve or even relieve symptoms. This may take weeks or months. Some persons may need to change or reduce the amount of time they play certain sports to remain pain-free.

With rotator cuff tears, treatment often relieves symptoms. But outcome depends on the size of the tear and how long the tear has been present, the person's age, and how active the person was before the injury.

 

When to Contact a Medical Professional

 

Call for an appointment with your health care provider if you have ongoing shoulder pain. Also call if symptoms do not improve with treatment.

 

Prevention

 

Avoid repetitive overhead movements. Exercises to strengthen shoulder and arm muscles can also help prevent rotator cuff problems. Practice good posture to keep your rotator cuff tendons and muscles in their right positions.

 

 

References

Miller RH III, Azar FM, Throckmorton TW. Shoulder and elbow injuries. In: Canale ST, Beaty JH, eds. Campbell's Operative Orthopaedics. 12th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2013:chap 46.

Rudolph GH, Moen T, Garofalo R, Krishnan SG. Rotator cuff and impingement lesions. In: Miller MD, Thompson SR, eds. DeLee and Drez's Orthopaedic Sports Medicine: Principles and Practice. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 52.

 
  • Rotator cuff problems

    Rotator cuff problems

    Animation

  •  

    Rotator cuff problems - Animation

    Feeling pain in your shoulder when you lift your arm over your head may mean you have a have a problem with your rotator cuff. So, what causes rotator cuff problems? The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that attach to the bones of your shoulder joint. The group allows your shoulder to move and keeps it stable. Pain in your rotator cuff area usually means you have rotator cuff tendinitis, or inflammation of these tendons and inflammation of the bursa, smooth slippery sacs the tendons glide across; or a rotator cuff tear, when one the tendons is torn from overuse or injury. Rotator cuff tendinitis may be due to keeping your arm in the same position for long periods of time, such as doing computer work or hairstyling. Sleeping on the same arm each night can also cause this problem. You can also get tendinitis playing sports that require you to move your arm over your head repeatedly, such as in tennis, baseball especially pitching, swimming, and weight-lifting. Rotator cuff tears may happen if you fall on your arm while it is stretched out, or after a sudden, jerking motion when trying to lift something heavy. Chronic tears occur slowly over time, particularly in people who have chronic tendinitis. At some point, the tendon wears down and starts to tear. If you have tendinitis, you'll have pain when you lift your arm over your head, such as when you brush your hair and reach for objects on shelves. The pain may be mild at first, but over time you may have pain at rest or at night, especially when you lie on your shoulder. The pain of a sudden rotator cuff tear can be intense. Your shoulder may be weak, and you may hear a snapping sound when you move your shoulder. Chronic symptoms include a gradual worsening of pain, weakness, stiffness or loss of motion. Most people with rotator cuff tears have worse pain at night and when they wake up. To treat your rotator cuff problem, your doctor will check your shoulder for tenderness and lift your arm to see in which position you have pain. X-rays may show a bone spur, a bony projection. If your doctor thinks you have a tear, you may have an ultrasound or MRI. Treatment for rotator cuff tendinitis involves resting your shoulder and avoiding the activities that cause you pain. You can also try applying ice packs 20 minutes at a time, 3 or 4 times a day. Medicines like ibuprofen may help reduce swelling and inflammation. Eventually, you should start physical therapy to learn to stretch and strengthen the muscles of your shoulder. Surgery can remove inflamed tissue and part of the bone that lies over the rotator cuff, which may help relieve the pressure on your tendons. Someone with a partial rotator cuff tear can try rest and exercise, if they don't normally put a lot of demand on their shoulder. But if there's a complete tear, or if the symptoms don't improve with therapy, you may need surgery to repair the tendon. But with rest or exercise, symptoms of most shoulder problems often improve or go away, though it may take months.

  • Normal rotator cuff

    Normal rotator cuff - illustration

    The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that form a cuff over the shoulder. These muscles and tendons hold the arm in its ball and socket joint and are involved in essentially all shoulder motions.

    Normal rotator cuff

    illustration

  • Shoulder joint inflammation

    Shoulder joint inflammation - illustration

    An inflammation of the shoulder joint can cause pain and restricted joint movement.

    Shoulder joint inflammation

    illustration

  • Inflamed shoulder tendons

    Inflamed shoulder tendons - illustration

    Tearing and inflammation of the tendons of the shoulder muscles can occur in sports which require the arm to be moved over the head repeatedly as in tennis, pitching, swimming, and lifting weights. Most often the shoulder will heal if a break is taken from the activities that caused the problem and pain. Intermittent ice packs applied to the shoulder and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can also help reduce inflammation and pain.

    Inflamed shoulder tendons

    illustration

  • Torn rotator cuff

    Torn rotator cuff - illustration

    The role of the tendons is to hold the powerful shoulder muscles to the shoulder and arm bones. The tendons can be torn from overuse or injury.

    Torn rotator cuff

    illustration

  • Rotator cuff problems

    Animation

  •  

    Rotator cuff problems - Animation

    Feeling pain in your shoulder when you lift your arm over your head may mean you have a have a problem with your rotator cuff. So, what causes rotator cuff problems? The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that attach to the bones of your shoulder joint. The group allows your shoulder to move and keeps it stable. Pain in your rotator cuff area usually means you have rotator cuff tendinitis, or inflammation of these tendons and inflammation of the bursa, smooth slippery sacs the tendons glide across; or a rotator cuff tear, when one the tendons is torn from overuse or injury. Rotator cuff tendinitis may be due to keeping your arm in the same position for long periods of time, such as doing computer work or hairstyling. Sleeping on the same arm each night can also cause this problem. You can also get tendinitis playing sports that require you to move your arm over your head repeatedly, such as in tennis, baseball especially pitching, swimming, and weight-lifting. Rotator cuff tears may happen if you fall on your arm while it is stretched out, or after a sudden, jerking motion when trying to lift something heavy. Chronic tears occur slowly over time, particularly in people who have chronic tendinitis. At some point, the tendon wears down and starts to tear. If you have tendinitis, you'll have pain when you lift your arm over your head, such as when you brush your hair and reach for objects on shelves. The pain may be mild at first, but over time you may have pain at rest or at night, especially when you lie on your shoulder. The pain of a sudden rotator cuff tear can be intense. Your shoulder may be weak, and you may hear a snapping sound when you move your shoulder. Chronic symptoms include a gradual worsening of pain, weakness, stiffness or loss of motion. Most people with rotator cuff tears have worse pain at night and when they wake up. To treat your rotator cuff problem, your doctor will check your shoulder for tenderness and lift your arm to see in which position you have pain. X-rays may show a bone spur, a bony projection. If your doctor thinks you have a tear, you may have an ultrasound or MRI. Treatment for rotator cuff tendinitis involves resting your shoulder and avoiding the activities that cause you pain. You can also try applying ice packs 20 minutes at a time, 3 or 4 times a day. Medicines like ibuprofen may help reduce swelling and inflammation. Eventually, you should start physical therapy to learn to stretch and strengthen the muscles of your shoulder. Surgery can remove inflamed tissue and part of the bone that lies over the rotator cuff, which may help relieve the pressure on your tendons. Someone with a partial rotator cuff tear can try rest and exercise, if they don't normally put a lot of demand on their shoulder. But if there's a complete tear, or if the symptoms don't improve with therapy, you may need surgery to repair the tendon. But with rest or exercise, symptoms of most shoulder problems often improve or go away, though it may take months.

  • Normal rotator cuff

    Normal rotator cuff - illustration

    The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that form a cuff over the shoulder. These muscles and tendons hold the arm in its ball and socket joint and are involved in essentially all shoulder motions.

    Normal rotator cuff

    illustration

  • Shoulder joint inflammation

    Shoulder joint inflammation - illustration

    An inflammation of the shoulder joint can cause pain and restricted joint movement.

    Shoulder joint inflammation

    illustration

  • Inflamed shoulder tendons

    Inflamed shoulder tendons - illustration

    Tearing and inflammation of the tendons of the shoulder muscles can occur in sports which require the arm to be moved over the head repeatedly as in tennis, pitching, swimming, and lifting weights. Most often the shoulder will heal if a break is taken from the activities that caused the problem and pain. Intermittent ice packs applied to the shoulder and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can also help reduce inflammation and pain.

    Inflamed shoulder tendons

    illustration

  • Torn rotator cuff

    Torn rotator cuff - illustration

    The role of the tendons is to hold the powerful shoulder muscles to the shoulder and arm bones. The tendons can be torn from overuse or injury.

    Torn rotator cuff

    illustration

A Closer Look

 

    Self Care

     

    Tests for Rotator cuff problems

     

       

      Review Date: 7/13/2015

      Reviewed By: C. Benjamin Ma, MD, Professor, Chief, Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service, UCSF Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, San Francisco, CA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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