A shoulder rotator cuff tear is a common cause of pain and disability. A torn rotator cuff will weaken your shoulder making simple, routine daily activities painful, and participation in athletic and sports activities impossible. The head of your upper arm bone fits into a rounded socket in your shoulder blade. This socket is called the glenoid. A combination of muscles and tendons works to keep your arm bone centered in your shoulder socket. These tissues are called the rotator cuff. When one or more of the rotator cuff tendons is weakened or torn, the shoulder tends to ride out of its socket causing pain along with more damage to the cuff tendons. Pain begins with inflammation in the cuff tendons which, if untreated, progresses to fraying in the tendon and eventual tearing. The symptoms can be disabling making lifting your arm, brushing your teeth or combing your hair painful.
Rotator cuff tears typically result from either injury or degeneration. An acute tear is common if you fall down and land or try to catch yourself on your outstretched arm or if you lift something too heavy with a jerking motion. A degenerative tear most often results from a “wearing down” of the tendon that occurs slowly over time. Degenerative rotator cuff tears often begin with repetitive stress movements affecting the muscles and tendons. This is quite common in many athletic and sports activities such as baseball, tennis, hockey rowing, and weightlifting-all of which expose you to overuse of the rotator cuff tissue. Even work activities, household chores and hobbies can cause repetitive stress from overuse. As we get older, reduced blood supply to the rotator cuff impairs your body’s natural healing and repair abilities and result in a tendon tear. If you develop bone spurs in the shoulder joint, these spurs can rub or “impinge” on the rotator cuff tendon, weakening it and cause it to tear. In general you are at greater risk for a shoulder rotator cuff tear when you are above 40 years of age. People who do a great deal of repetitive lifting or overhead work-such as carpenters and painters, and especially those who are participate in certain sports-such as baseball pitchers or play tennis are at greater risk for rotator cuff tears due to overuse and degeneration.
The more common symptoms of a shoulder rotator cuff tear include experiencing pain in the shoulder and over the outside of the upper arm. Reaching, particularly above shoulder height or lying on the shoulder increases pain. With greater injury, pain may occur as an aching sensation when sitting at rest and is accompanied by arm weakness. Tears due to injury can cause immediate intense pain whereas tears that develop slowly due to overuse cause gradual pain and arm weakness. At first, the pain may be mild and only present when lifting your arm over your head, such as reaching into a closet. Over time, the pain may become more noticeable when you rest, and doesn’t get better with medications.