Rotator cuff tears are one of the most common types of shoulder injuries. These tears can happen as part of the aging process, or due to acute trauma. The shoulder joint can be overused during certain kinds of exercise, like swinging a golf club or baseball bat. It can also be strained during repetitive daily activities like painting walls, lifting heavy items, or moving furniture.
If you suspect you have a rotator cuff tear, here are some commonly asked questions, treatment options, home care, and what to expect if physical therapy or surgery becomes necessary.
WHAT IS THE ROTATOR CUFF?
Rotator cuff tears are a common injury because of the tendency to over-use the muscles and tendons around the ball-and-socket shoulder joint. Just think of how often you use your shoulder for common daily tasks — carrying grocery bags, lifting furniture, or pushing your child on a swing.
The rotator cuff is formed by a group of muscles that converge as tendons to form a “cuff” over the ball of the upper arm bone (humerus). These four muscles–known as the supraspinatus, subscapularis, infraspinatus, and teres minor to doctors–help maintain normal shoulder function and stability. They work together to protect the ball-and-socket shoulder joint, where the ball of the arm bone (humeral head) pops into the shoulder socket.
What causes rotator cuff tears?
Rotator cuff tears can happen as part of the normal aging process, as the four tendons grow thinner and weaker, causing them to disattach from the cuff. These tears can be partial or complete, depending on the severity. However, younger patients can also experience rotator cuff tears due to overuse or acute trauma. Oftentimes these sudden tears happen due to injury, and can be recognized by a snapping sensation or popping sound as the tendon pulls away from the bone.
Symptoms of a Rotator Cuff Tear
Shoulder pain comes in many forms. So how can you tell whether or not you have a rotator cuff tear, or just run-of-the-mill aches and pain?
Look for these symptoms:
- Pain in the front of the shoulder that radiates down the arm
- Pain specifically when reaching overhead
- Severe pain that impacts ability to sleep
- Weakness in the arm
- Difficulty with routine activities, like brushing hair
- Pain when lifting arms or reaching behind back
If sudden acute trauma causes the tear, you may experience a snapping sensation, followed by immediate weakness in the arm, or even a popping sound.
Common treatments for rotator cuff tears?
Many rotator cuff tears are treatable without surgery–so never let a fear of surgery prevent you from seeing a doctor. You don’t have to live with shoulder pain.
Some non-surgical treatments for rotator cuff tears include:
- Physical therapy sessions to strengthen the rotator cuff muscles
- Anti-inflammatory medications to ease pain and stiffness
- Steroid injections to ease severe pain
Sometimes, steroid injections are used in conjunction with physical therapy to allow a pain patient to tolerate strength-training.
Physical therapy is critical for healing after a rotator cuff tear, as tears typically occur with an atrophy of muscles around the shoulder and arm, leading to loss of range of motion. Special exercises are necessary to improve shoulder function and regain strength.
Surgery for rotator cuff tears
Sometimes, physical therapy isn’t enough to repair the muscles, and surgery is required to repair the tendons and re-attach them.
After doing a medical history and physical exam, your doctor will likely obtain X-rays and an MRI to check for other shoulder conditions, such as osteoarthritis. Once the severity of the tear is confirmed, Dr. Wilson may discuss surgical options.
Often, Dr. Wilson recommends surgery if a tear is significant enough to cause persistent pain or weakness, or if physical therapy does not lead to improvement. An athlete himself, Dr. Wilson also often recommends surgery for active people, such as baseball players, swimmers, or tennis players. Surgery is also indicated for people with active jobs, such as soldiers, carpenters, and painters.
Arthroscopic rotator cuff tear surgery
Dr. Wilson is an expert in minimally-invasive arthroscopic shoulder surgery. The small incision means less pain and quicker recovery times.
An arthroscope is a small, pencil-thin instrument with a small camera attached, which displays a magnified image on a big screen, allowing the surgeon to have better visibility without creating a large incision. Dr. Wilson will re-attach the torn tendon to its correct anatomical locations. When finished, the patient’s incisions are dressed and covered, and they return home the same day — often not even needing post-surgery pain medication!
Recovery time depends on the severity of the rotator cuff tear, but arthroscopic procedures lead to faster recovery time, less pain, and less scarring. It’s far easier than Open Surgery, and patients can go home the same day to recover in their own space.
Recovery time and post-surgical treatments
Patients often recover after only a few days rest at home. Discomfort should be minor, and can be controlled by anti-inflammatory pain medication, ice packs, and any other post-surgery medications and instructions provided by your doctor.
Dr. Wilson believes in accessibility. Especially after a surgery, he believes patients should be able to reach their doctor with questions and concerns at any time. Patients will be provided with Dr. Wilson’s personal cell phone number, where he can be texted or called while you recover.
Physical therapy is likely to be prescribed to ensure the shoulder heals properly and regains complete range-of-motion and strength.
What do Dr. Wilson’s Patients Say?
- “His care has allowed me to become more active and return to physical activities I love and keep me striving towards a healthy mind and body.”
- “I highly recommend Dr. Wilson to do anyone’s shoulder surgery because I trusted him with mine and the results have been perfect.”
- “Dr. Wilson is great!! He fixed my shoulder and I am back in the gym.”
- “He will treat you like a brother.”
Rotator Cuff Treatment with Raleigh’s Top Shoulder Specialist
Dr. Wilson has been recognized as Raleigh’s Most Compassionate Doctor and Raleigh’s Top Doctor. He’s served as the orthopedic doctor for the United States Navy, as well as professional baseball teams, like the Chicago Bulls and White Sox. He’s worked with global leaders in the orthopedic field, believes in surgery as a last resort, and is open and accessible for his patients.