Diagnosing a Rotator Cuff Injury
A “rotator cuff” might sound like a car part, but it’s actually a crucial part of your shoulder joint. The rotator cuff is a collection of muscles, tendons, and ligaments that work together to help your shoulder move. It also keeps the ball of the shoulder joint inside the concave socket. As there are so many structures involved, experiencing a rotator cuff injury is quite common. Since you use your rotator cuff for most shoulder movements, even a minor injury can be painful.
What happens when a rotator cuff is torn?
Rotator cuff tears occur when a tendon is completely or partly torn away from its attachment to the bone. Traumatic injuries cause most tears, but in older people, normal activity can also cause tears. If you experience a rotator cuff tear, here are the keys to diagnosing an injury and getting the right treatment.
Rotator Cuff Injuries: Types and Symptoms
Both traumatic injuries and everyday wear and tear can cause rotator cuff injuries. Most rotator cuff pain involves tendon inflammation (tendonitis), commonly caused by repetitive use. If you use your shoulders a lot for lifting, reaching, or throwing, you’re more likely to have tendonitis—which is why this condition tends to be more common among athletes. In more extreme cases, the tendons can start to fray, a condition called tendinosis.
What are common symptoms?
Rotator cuff symptoms can vary to some degree based on the type and extent of your injury. The most common symptom is pain when moving your shoulder. Usually, the pain feels like a deep aching along the top and side of the joint. Sometimes, pain will radiate down the arm as well as around the front and side of the shoulder. You’ll have pain when lifting your arm over your head or lifting something heavy. Pain is often accompanied by weakness in the arm, and if you try to sleep on your injured side, the pain can intensify. Like other types of muscle and tendon damage, rotator cuff injuries may cause very mild symptoms or no symptoms at all during their early stages.
Can a torn rotator cuff heal on its own?
Generally, very small rotator cuff tears can heal on their own with proper medical treatment. Rotator cuff injury healing time can range from two to four weeks for a minor injury or as long as several months, depending on the severity of the tear or strain. If your injury is more severe and you don’t seek medical counsel, the tendon may not heal properly and could leave you with chronic pain and decreased use of your shoulder.
Rotator Cuff Injury Treatment
How is a rotator cuff injury diagnosed and treated?
Dr. Van Thiel uses an array of tests and exams for diagnosing a rotator cuff injury, beginning with a thorough exam of your shoulder. During your office visit, he’ll move your shoulder in different ways to pinpoint the location of your rotator cuff pain and test your shoulder function and strength. He’ll also ask you about your activities, your medical history, and the specific nature of your symptoms. Often, he’ll prescribe diagnostic imaging, like X-rays or MRI, to obtain images of the inside of your shoulder. The exam and imaging tests enable Dr. Van Thiel to prescribe a customized course of rotator cuff injury treatment.
In most cases, rotator cuff treatment begins conservatively, with exercises and gentle stretching designed to reduce inflammation and restore normal joint function. You might also benefit from ice packs and over-the-counter pain medicines. In some cases, Dr. Van Thiel may recommend joint injections to provide more immediate and targeted relief.
If your injury is getting in the way of comfortable movement and enjoying normal activity, it’s always best to seek medical counsel. In more severe injuries, rotator cuff surgery might be the best course of action to repair the damage. Upon having surgery, time and physical therapy will be crucial throughout your rotator cuff surgery recovery.
The key to a quick and complete recovery is to have your pain evaluated as soon as possible, before serious or even permanent damage occurs. To find out what’s causing your shoulder pain, schedule an office visit today.