Your shoulder is an incredibly mobile joint that allows your arm to reach, rotate, and throw. But this mobility comes at a cost: it leaves the joint vulnerable to injury, especially rotator cuff tears.
The rotator cuff performs the important role of keeping your arm firmly in place in your shoulder socket. The four muscles come together as tendons that wrap over the head of the humerus, or upper arm bone. A functioning rotator cuff helps you lift and rotate your arm.
Repetitive activity wears down these tendons, however, making your rotator cuff vulnerable to injury. When any of the four rotator cuff muscles is torn or sprained, you have a rotator cuff tear, which often causes severe pain and weakness, even when resting — especially when lying on the affected shoulder. Alternatively, the pain and weakness might be acute, only coming on when you try to lift or lower your arm.
You may also notice a crackling or snapping sensation in the shoulder when you move it in certain ways, especially when twisting or lifting your arm.
Athletes are at risk
Athletes, even “weekend warriors,” are often vulnerable to rotator cuff tears due to the repetitive nature of the movements involved in many sports, particularly rowing, tennis, weightlifting, and softball or baseball.
When you repeat movements over and over again, such as pitching a ball or swinging a racquet, it causes repeated stress on the shoulder and wears down the connective tissue and muscles.
Athletes aren’t the only ones vulnerable to rotator cuff tears. Simple aging and degeneration can contribute to tears. Many jobs and routine chores that have repetitive movements, such as painting or yard work, can cause overuse tears.
As you age, the blood supply to connective tissue and joints — including the rotator cuff — decreases. This reduces your natural ability to repair minor damage, so over time, the damage may progress into a full-blown tear.
It’s also common to form bone spurs on the underside of the acromion (a bony protrusion on top of your shoulder blade) as you age. These spurs rub on the tendons of the rotator cuff every time you lift your arms, resulting in a condition known as impingement that can weaken the tendon and cause a tear.
Tears aren’t always obvious
Rotator cuff injuries aren’t always complete tears in which the soft tissue splits into two sections. You may also experience a partial tear, where the soft tissue is damaged but not completely severed. You’ll still feel pain with a partial tear, but you may be more inclined to keep using your shoulder despite the discomfort. This leads to further damage and a larger tear.
If you feel any pain in your shoulder, visit Dr. Nolan. He can rule out a tear or diagnose it early enough that nonsurgical interventions, such as activity modification, strengthening exercises, steroid injections, and rest, can help relieve your pain and improve your shoulder function.
Rotator cuff injuries do take time to heal, so you must be patient to achieve successful rehabilitation. If you have shoulder pain, weakness, or diminished range of motion, don’t hesitate to consult Dr. Nolan. It’s better to get an early diagnosis of the injury than to allow it to become more severe.