Rotator Cuff Injury

(Rotator Cuff Tear; Impingement Syndrome)


Rotator cuff injury may include tendinitis, strain, or tear of the rotator cuff. The rotator cuff is made up of muscles and 4 separate tendons that fuse together to surround the shoulder joint.

Rotator Cuff Injury

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Causes    TOP

Causes of a rotator cuff injury include:

  • Direct blow to the shoulder area
  • Falling on an outstretched arm
  • Chronic degenerative wear and tear on the tendons:
    • Arthritis may decrease the space for the tendons
    • Chronic instability of the humerus may traumatize the tendons
  • Repetitive overhead motion of the arm such as in:
    • Swimming
    • Baseball (mainly pitching)
    • Tennis

Risk Factors    TOP

Rotator cuff injury is more common in people 40 years and older. Other factors that increase your chance of a rotator cuff injury include:

  • Heavy lifting
  • Abnormalities of the shoulder, or in rotator cuff anatomy or function
  • Activities that involve repetitive overhead arm motion such as throwing
  • Weakened shoulder muscles from inactivity or previous injury

Symptoms    TOP

Rotator cuff injury may cause:

  • Recurrent, constant pain, particularly when reaching overhead
  • Pain at night that prevents you from sleeping
  • Shoulder muscle weakness, especially when lifting the arm
  • Popping or clicking sounds when the shoulder is moved
  • Limited range of motion in the shoulder joint

Diagnosis    TOP

You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done, paying particular attention to your shoulder. You will be asked to move your shoulder in several directions.

Tests may include:

  • Ultrasound
  • Arthrogram
  • MRI scan
  • Arthroscopy

Treatment    TOP

The treatment will depend on the extent of your injury, level of pain, and amount of immobility. The first step is usually a nonsurgical approach.


Nonsurgical approaches may include:

  • Rest to help the shoulder heal; an arm sling may be advised to help rest the shoulder area
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to control the pain and/or inflammation
  • Topical pain relievers, such as creams or patches, that are applied to the skin
  • Corticosteroid injections to help reduce pain and inflammation
  • Injection of platelet rich plasma (PRP) to promote healing
  • Ice to help relieve pain and inflammation
  • Physical therapy to help strengthen and increase motion in the shoulder area



Acromioplasty is surgery on the bony structures that impinge the rotator cuff. Surgery can be arthroscopic or open.


A small instrument is inserted into the shoulder and used to remove bone spurs or degenerated portions of the rotator cuff tendons. Lesser tears can be repaired during arthroscopy as well.

Mini-Open Repair with Arthroscopy

This combines arthroscopy with an incision in the shoulder joint. Through the incision, larger tears in the tendons or muscles can be sutured.

Open Surgery

This is used to repair the injured tendon or muscle in more severe cases. A tissue transfer or a tendon graft can be done during surgery if the tear is too large to be closed together. In the most severe cases, a joint replacement may be necessary.

Recovery    TOP

Depending on the extent of your injury, full recovery can take anywhere from 2 to 6 months or longer.

Prevention    TOP

To help reduce your chance a rotator cuff injury:

  • Avoid overhead repetitive motion.
  • Limit duration of work that involves:
    • Moving hands above shoulders
    • Using shoulder in extreme outward rotation
    • Vibrating tools
  • Avoid heavy lifting.
  • Exercise regularly to strengthen the muscles around the shoulder joint.


The American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine
Ortho Info—American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons


Canadian Orthopaedic Association
The University of British Columbia Department of Orthopaedics


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Rotator cuff tear. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:
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Updated July 13, 2015. Accessed August 5, 2015.
Smith MA, Smith WT. Rotator cuff tears: an overview. Orthop Nurs. 2010;29(5):319-322
10/26/2010 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance
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Massey T, Derry S, Moore R, McQuay H. Topical NSAIDs for acute pain in adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2010;(6):CD007402.
Last reviewed August 2015 by Warren A. Bodine, DO, CAQSM
Last Updated: 10/31/2012

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