The rotator cuff is the group of four tendons and muscles that surround the shoulder joint. Often confused with other names, the proper word used to describe these muscles and tendons is the rotator cuff.
When the rotator cuff is injured, it’s the tendons that are injured. These tendons connect the rotator cuff muscles to the bone. When the tendons are inflamed or torn, they cannot function properly.
The rotator cuff is not only important with lifting movements of the shoulder, but the muscles and tendons are critical to the normal stability and mechanics of the shoulder. Without a properly functioning rotator cuff, you would expect some limits in normal shoulder function.
Rotator Cuff Tear Symptoms
Pain is the most common symptom of a rotator cuff problem. Patients usually complain of pain over the top of the shoulder and arm. In some patients, the pain can descend down the outside of the arm all the way to the elbow. So people may experience rotator cuff pain is less typical location such as the back of the shoulder or knee event within the armpit.
Shoulder weakness is the other common symptom of a rotator cuff tear. Weakness causes difficulty lifting the arm up overhead or difficulty with activities such as reaching, getting dressed, or carrying objects. Your doctor will try to distinguish between actual weakness as opposed to apparent weakness. Actual weakness means that the muscle is damaged or the tendon is torn. Essentially, the muscle will not work. Apparent weakness occurs when pain limits someone’s ability to activity. While the muscle and tendon are about structurally damaged, pain prevents the individual from performing their normal activities.
Rotator cuff tears are incredibly common, especially as you age. They are so common that most people with a torn rotator cuff don’t even realize they have a problem.
Most people with a rotator cuff tear have no pain and minimal limitations in function. However, sometimes the tear can cause symptoms, and these individuals may require treatment.
Rotator Cuff Tear Treatments
Most rotator cuff tears can be treated without surgery. In fact, only a small minority of patients end up undergoing surgical treatment for a rotator cuff tear.
Non-operative rotator cuff treatments may include:
- Physical therapy for the rotator cuff
- Anti-Inflammatory Medications
- Cortisone injections
Rotator Cuff Tear Surgery
There are several surgical options for the treatment of a rotator cuff tear.
The exact type of surgery may depend on factors including the size and location of your tear, your surgeon’s preference, and the activities you want to be able to return to after surgery. Discuss with your doctor which type of surgery he recommends for the treatment of your rotator cuff tear.
Traditionally, surgical treatment of a rotator cuff tear was performed by making a large incision over the top of the shoulder and directly visualizing the damage to be torn rotator cuff. More recently, smaller incisions, and even arthroscopic surgery, has been used to identify and repair areas of damage to the rotator cuff without having to make large incisions around the shoulder. Not every rotator cuff injury is the same, and certain tears may be better managed by wants surgical technique may be addressed is easily with another surgical technique. Furthermore, different surgeons will have preferences regarding how they can best accomplish the repair of the damaged rotator cuff through various surgical techniques. If you have questions about your surgeon’s preferred technique, it is worthwhile to discuss that prior to surgery.