Torn Rotator Cuff: An Overview

Can a torn rotator cuff heal on its own? 

Did you know that over 3 million Americans experience rotator cuff injuries like a torn rotator cuff every year, making it one of the most common points of injury? The rotator cuff is engaged when you use your arm to carry, pick up, push, or bear weight in any way. A group of muscles and four tendons, the rotator cuff’s ball-in-socket structure connects your arm to the ribcage and shoulder, also providing a crucial axis of mobility and stabilization. Needless to say, there’s no way to avoid frequently exerting it in our daily life. 

Rotator cuff injuries range from mild inflammation to a complete tear, and can be caused by several reasons. Based on levels of severity and individual awareness, some people live with rotator cuff tears for months. However, others may seek immediate treatment. Whatever kind of injury you’ve sustained, it’s crucial to know that torn rotator cuffs cannot heal on their own. Not all injuries require surgery, but all require some kind of treatment.  

Common Causes of Rotator Cuff Injuries 

As we age, the natural process of degeneration wears down our muscles and weakens bones, making certain body parts more susceptible to injury. And the rotator cuff, already predisposed to over-use, becomes increasingly vulnerable. Adults over the age of 40 have a steadily growing chance of experiencing rotator cuff injuries. In fact, a reported 30% of adults over the age of 70 complaining about regular shoulder pain. Furthermore, risk factors such as a family history of rotator cuff tears, smoking, long-term repetitive jobs, and bad posture can all increase your risk of rotator cuff deterioration and injury.  

The other primary cause of a rotator cuff injury is through direct trauma, whether it be a fall, pulling on the arm, over-exerting the arm/shoulder, or acutely wounding it in any way. Direct trauma accounts for the more severe spectrum of rotator cuff injuries, and therefore more often requires surgery. Athletes, such as swimmers, weight lifters, and tennis players, are particularly prone to rotator cuff injuries. If you experience this kind of rotator cuff tear, you’ll likely know immediately. Symptoms include sharp pain, a snapping sensation, arm weakness, or popping and clicking sounds.  

Healing and Treatment Options 

Whether you are certain you have a severe rotator cuff tear, or you’re just experiencing mild shoulder pain, it’s highly recommended that you consult your doctor. Untreated rotator cuff injuries only worsen with time. Before your diagnosis, it’s also important that you rest and ice your arm as much as possible.  

Diagnosis will begin with a physical exam by a qualified medical professional like a board-certified orthopedic surgeon. Your doctor may also attempt arm exercises that include reaching forward or rotating the shoulder. After that, if these exercises cause pain, you likely have a rotator cuff injury. Then, based on these results, your doctor may use an MRI, ultrasound, or X-ray to look for tearing. 

If you seem to be suffering from inflammation or only a mild injury, your doctor may recommend using a sling, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicine, and/or corticosteroid injections. Then, after immobilization, you will use physical therapy and also personalized exercises to regain your strength and mobility. The majority of rotator cuff injuries require this treatment process.  

Surgery is often necessary for more severe rotator cuff tears. Typically, this is an outpatient, non-invasive procedure. For most tears, surgery will entail arthroscopic repair, in which the orthopedic surgeon will make several small incisions to insert a camera and tools. For more large, complex injuries, the surgeon may choose open tendon repair. Both types of surgery have significant periods of recovery, also requiring months of healing and rehabilitation.  

If you have shoulder pain that is not improving, and are interested in seeking medical attention in the Louisville, Kentucky-region, Orthopaedic Specialists PLLC is here for you. Our experienced team includes double-board certified orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine physician Dr. Stacie Grossfeld. For additional information or to schedule an appointment, call 502-212-2663 today.