Rotator Cuff Tears

What is a rotator cuff tear?

Your shoulder is a ball-and-socket joint that is made up of various bones, muscles, and tendons. The three bones that form your shoulder are the humerus, the scapula, and the clavicle — also known as your upper arm bone, your shoulder blade, and your collarbone. The head of the humerus acts as the ball, and a hollow groove in the scapula acts as the socket. Your rotator cuff, which is made up of various tendons that cover the surface of the humerus, acts as a connector between the two, helping to keep the head of the humerus firmly situated in the shoulder socket and also enabling upper arm movements. Damage to these tendons can lead to what is known as a rotator cuff tear.

A rotator cuff tear occurs when there is a tear in one or more of your rotator cuff tendons, weakening or separating the connection between the tendon and the head of the humerus. There are two types of rotator cuff tears: a partial tear and full-thickness tear. With a partial tear, the tendon is damaged but has not fully split in two. When the rotator cuff tendon is completely torn, it is called a full-thickness tear. When a full-thickness tear occurs, the entire tendon becomes separated from the bone. A torn tendon typically begins as a slight wearing of the tendon, gradually worsening over time, and completely tearing at some point.

What causes the rotator cuff to tear?

Most rotator cuff tears are degenerative, meaning the tendon gradually and progressively wears down over time — a natural effect of aging. Because of this, people who are 40 and older have an increased risk of experiencing a tear in their rotator cuff. Factors that may lead to degenerative rotator cuffs include:

  • Repetitive stress — which can lead to “overuse” tears when certain arm motions are repeated again and again over time. Athletes who play certain sports, such as tennis, baseball, and weightlifting, are at an increased risk of experiencing an overuse tear. Working certain routine jobs may also lead to overuse tears.
  • Decrease in blood supply — which can negatively affect the body’s ability to repair tendons that have become damaged.
  • Bone spurs — which are bone overgrowths that can rub against the rotator cuff tendons and increase the risk of tearing.

Another common cause of rotator cuff tears, primarily among young adults, is sudden trauma or injury. Falling down, improper lifting, and other shoulder injuries can cause the rotator cuff to tear.

What are the symptoms of a torn rotator cuff?

Depending on the type of rotator cuff tear, symptoms may vary. Some people may experience no pain at all, while others may experience pain that interferes with basic day-to-day activities and routines. Signs and symptoms of a torn rotator cuff may include:

  • Shoulder pain when lifting your arm
  • Pain that travels down your arm
  • Arms and shoulder feel weak when rotating or lifting your arm
  • A “crackling” feeling with certain movements of the shoulder
  • A sudden “snapping” feeling
  • Pain when at rest or during sleep
  • Pain when you place weight on the shoulder

How can I tell if I have torn my rotator cuff?

If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms or believe you have a torn rotator cuff, an evaluation by an experienced medical professional can help determine the cause of your symptoms. To help diagnose a torn rotator cuff, your doctor will begin by going over your medical history and symptoms. Next, your doctor will perform a physical exam of your shoulder, looking for any signs of tenderness or any abnormalities. Your doctor may also ask that you perform certain tasks to help assess your mobility and arm strength.

To ensure that your symptoms are not the result of similar conditions, your doctor may also examine your neck for signs of a pinched nerve or other conditions. Your doctor may also need to perform additional testing for further diagnosis. Additional testing may include X-rays, MRIs, or ultrasounds.

Can a torn rotator cuff lead to complications if left untreated?

Left untreated, a rotator cuff tear can increase in size and lead to additional damage. With early treatment, you can help protect the rotator cuff from further damage and return to your daily activities and routines.

How is a torn rotator cuff treated?

If you are suffering from a rotator cuff tear and are seeking pain relief, there are treatment options available. Based on various factors, such as the type of tear, your age, and health, treatment will vary.

Here at our practice, whenever possible, we aim to first recommend nonsurgical treatments to help restore mobility, alleviate pain, and prevent the progression of damage. Nonsurgical treatment may include:

  • Resting and avoiding overhead activities
  • Utilizing a sling to help stabilize and protect your shoulder
  • Avoiding activities that induce shoulder pain
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to bring down swelling and pain
  • Physical therapy and exercise to improve shoulder strength and mobility
  • Steroid injections to help alleviate pain

When nonsurgical treatment options are ineffective, we specialize in and offer surgical treatment options such as arthroscopy and open shoulder surgery to help effectively treat and repair torn rotator cuffs. Platelet-rich plasma therapy may also be used to help heal damaged tissue, alleviate pain, and enhance recovery time.

If you are experiencing symptoms of a rotator cuff tear, a consultation with an orthopedic specialist may be the first step towards diagnosis, treatment, and recovery. Dr. Burrus is an experienced fellowship-trained orthopedic surgeon who is dedicated to providing high-quality, specialized holistic care. Call 512.477.6341 or fill out the form on this page to schedule an appointment.