Rotator Cuff Injury: What You Need To Know

Nov 16, 2022


A common injury can get more painful over time. Here’s how orthopedists help. 

Rotator cuff injuries happen when the tendons that connect the ball-and-socket joint of the shoulder tear or become detached from the bone, causing pain. If untreated, this injury can deteriorate and cause even more pain over time. 

Luckily, there are treatment options, says board-certified orthopedic surgeon Amber Chatwin, MD. Here, she covers what causes the tear and how it is treated. 

How tears happen 

Rotator cuff tears can occur over time or very suddenly. “Repetitive motion, such as throwing baseball pitches or lifting heavy objects overhead, can cause the tissue to wear over many years,” Dr. Chatwin says. 

She adds that a hard fall can sometimes result in an injury even without long-term wear on the tendons. “It could also be degenerative,” Dr. Chatwin explains. “As you age, the tissues weaken and can tear more easily.” 

Worsening with wear 

If your rotator cuff has torn, you might feel a dull ache deep in your shoulder and weakness in your arm. The pain can also make it difficult to sleep, especially if you toss and turn.  

Dr. Chatwin recommends first seeing your primary care provider for an evaluation. He or she can examine your shoulder and order diagnostic imaging, such as X-rays and MRIs. Your provider can assess for other causes of shoulder pain, including arthritis and bursitis, prescribe medications and refer you to physical therapy, if needed. If symptoms do not improve, your provider may refer you to an orthopedist. 

Options for treatment 

When Dr. Chatwin sees a person with a torn rotator cuff, she examines the patient’s specific symptoms and diagnostic imaging before making a recommendation for treatment.  

“It really depends on age, activity level and the type of tear,” she explains. 

Nonsurgical treatments include rest, physical therapy and pain relief, such as steroid injections. If symptoms persist, an orthopedic surgeon can reattach the tendon to the bone