A Pain in the Arm: What Is a Rotator Cuff Injury?

Rotator Cuff Injury

Did you know that around 2 million people in the United States alone suffer from rotator cuff problems every year? A rotator cuff injury is more common than you would expect and it can be very inconvenient and painful to deal with. But what are rotator cuff injuries exactly?

How do they happen and what can you do if you think you have a rotator cuff injury? If you’re asking yourself these questions, you’ve clicked on the right article to find your answers. Here, you’ll discover what an injury to your rotator cuff might involve and what you can do to fix it.

First, let’s take a better look at what the rotator cuff is exactly and how it’s supposed to function in the body.

What Is the Rotator Cuff?

Answering the question, “What is a rotator cuff” is not a simple task because a rotator cuff is not one part of the body. Rather, the rotator cuff is a collection of muscles, tendons, and bones, that all work together to allow movement in your shoulder. You actually have two rotator cuffs, one in each upper shoulder.

Specifically, your rotator cuff is made up of the upper ball of your humerus bone (your upper arm bone) and the surrounding muscles and tendons. The structure of your rotator cuff is very precise and, when everything in the area works together, your rotator cuff allows you to lift your arms over your head, in front of your body, and out to your sides.

The ball of your humerus bone is indirectly connected to the scapula which is your shoulder blade. The majority of the scapula is flat so it can glide against the ribs on your back. However, on the lateral side of the scapula is a shallow, cup-like area known as the glenoid fossa or cavity.

This cavity works to cup the ball of the humerus so it stays in place. Of course, these two bones would never stay together without the help of some muscles and tendons. There are four main muscles that make up this part of the shoulder: the supraspinatus, the teres minor, the infraspinatus, and the subscapularis.

The Muscles of the Rotator Cuff

These muscles are all small, but they are all important for granting you the ability to move your arms. For example, the supraspinatus is vital for anchoring your humerus in place and for lifting your upper arm.

The infraspinatus is the muscle necessary to extend and rotate your shoulder. The subscapularis is also important for rotating your arm as well as extending it and lowering it in front of you. Finally, the teres minor (the smallest of the rotator cuff muscles) allows the arm to rotate away from the body.

When it comes to injuries to your rotator cuff, the problem almost always comes down to these muscles or the tendons connected to these muscles. Once these muscles are damaged, you can imagine that it would become very difficult to move your arm in any direction.

But what kind of rotator cuff injuries are there in the first place?

Understanding the Rotator Cuff Injury

A tear in the rotator cuff is one of the most common injuries in this area of the body. As people get older, the risk of rotator cuff tears increases because the rotator cuff, as with other parts of the body, wears down with time. However, those who are more physical tend to be at the highest risk for developing rotator cuff tears.

For example, if you often play tennis or are involved in a business that requires extensive use of your arms (such as in construction), you will be more likely to develop a rotator cuff injury. This is because repetitive movements of the upper arm and shoulder will slowly wear out the delicate tendons and muscles in this area.

However, repetitive arm movements do not always cause tears to the rotator cuff. Injuries to the rotator cuff can also happen all of a sudden such as when you lift something heavy without preparing. There are also other ways in which your rotator cuff can experience an injury such as via bursitis or tendonitis.

Rotator cuff tendinopathy or tendonitis involves inflammation of the tendons in your rotator cuff. This kind of injury is sometimes called swimmer’s shoulder because swimmers can often get this kind of shoulder inflammation by swimming too often. Bursitis, on the other hand, involves a gel-like sac (the bursa) in your rotator cuff that normally acts as a buffer or shock absorber.

The bursa is also important for ensuring that the ball of your humerus bone moves smoothly against the other parts of the rotator cuff. Bursitis is when the bursa becomes inflamed or infected. Usually, both bursitis and tendonitis go away on their own as long as you stop the repetitive movements that caused them in the first place.

Symptoms of a Rotator Cuff Tear

A rotator cuff tear is almost always more serious than tendonitis or bursitis in the area since a tear involves physical damage to the rotator cuff. There are different types of tears and depending on the seriousness of the injury, you may experience various symptoms and may need different treatment options.

There are two types of rotator cuff tears: partial and complete. With a partial tear, you might not even realize your rotator cuff is torn. This is because the symptoms associated with this kind of tear tend to be mild.

In some cases, you may not feel any discomfort at all with a partial tear. In other cases, you may experience dull pain around your shoulder joint, but you may only feel this if you move your arm in a certain way. You may also feel that your arm is weaker than usual.

A partial tear usually involves one or more of the muscles in the rotator cuff getting frayed. A full tear, in contrast, involves one or more of the muscles tearing all the way through or tearing away from the humerus. This, of course, is a much more serious and more painful condition.

Even if the discomfort in your shoulder is mild, you should go to a doctor to get it checked out. This is because if you have a rotator cuff tear and don’t do anything about it, you could increase your risk of developing arthritis in the area later on. In serious cases, you may lose the ability to move your arm and shoulder altogether.

Your doctor will be able to diagnose a rotator cuff tear by examining your range of movement. Your doctor may also take an MRI or an X-ray. After your diagnosis, you can move on to rotator cuff injury treatment.

Rotator Cuff Injury Treatment Options

As mentioned before, the treatment options for your injured rotator cuff will depend on how seriously injured your rotator cuff is. For partial tears, the treatment options are not very invasive and can be easily managed. To treat any pain or discomfort you may have in your rotator cuff as it recovers, your doctor may recommend that you take some over-the-counter pain medication.

To treat a partial rotator cuff tear, you will most likely need to try physical therapy. The aim of physical therapy is to restore mobility in your shoulder and arm. It will also make your muscles in the area stronger so they can better support your rotator cuff.

Your physical therapist will likely teach you certain movements you can do at home so you can ensure that your rotator cuff will heal properly. Beyond physical therapy, you also should avoid any movements that might have caused your injury in the first place. So, you should avoid lifting heavy objects and repetitive movements involving the arms and shoulders.

If you have a full rotator cuff tear, you will most likely need surgery. This is because your surgeon will need to attach the two parts of a muscle or tendon that have separated due to your injury. Your surgeon may also need to reattach your tendon to your humerus as well, depending on your injury.

There are various ways in which your doctor may perform surgery on your rotator cuff. You can watch a rotator cuff surgery video to see the details of the process. Your doctor may make a small incision in your rotator cuff to fix your torn tendons and remove any stray pieces of tendons.

In severe cases, you may need a tendon transfer or shoulder replacement. It should take around 6 weeks to heal.

Everything You Need to Know About Rotator Cuff Injuries

If you’ve made it to the end of this article, you should know what a rotator cuff injury is as well as the symptoms and treatment options. Armed with this information, you can make sure your rotator cuffs are always in great shape.

To learn more, check out the health section on our website.

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