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Rotator Cuff Tears | What You Need to Know

Rotator cuff tears are a common cause of pain, weakness and loss of function at the shoulder. They are a condition frequently diagnosed and treated by the specialist musculoskeletal physiotherapy team here at The Physios. Find out here what a rotator cuff tear is, what causes them, how they are diagnosed and an overview of how they are managed.

What is the rotator cuff?

The rotator cuff (or rotary cuff as it’s commonly mistaken for here in Sheffield!) is a group of four muscles surrounding the shoulder joint. They produce movement at the shoulder and also play a key role in stabilisation of the joint.

The term ‘rotator cuff tear’ refers to a tear within one or more of the rotator cuff tendons (the tendon being the part of the muscle that attaches it to the bone). The primary symptom of a rotator cuff tear is pain, which can sometimes radiate into the upper arm. The pain typically occurs on movement of the arm away from the body, and can also be accompanied with difficulty lifting the arm due to weakness.

What causes a tear?

Rotator cuff tears are fairly atypical in the younger population and are usually the result of a traumatic injury, such as a fall on to the arm. In older people, they can either occur as the result of trauma, or as the result of degenerative changes within the rotator cuff tendons.

Physiotherapy for rotator cuff tears

An expert musculoskeletal physiotherapist will be able to differentiate the cause of your shoulder pain from other common conditions at the shoulder such as; a frozen shoulder, osteoarthritis and other rotator cuff conditions such as bursitis or tendinopathy. If a tear is suspected, an ultrasound scan can be helpful in confirming the size and extent of the tear. Sometimes if the tear is sizable, a referral to an orthopaedic consultant will be recommended to asses whether the tear requires surgical repair. It’s worth noting, that when we look at the rotator cuff of an older person with ultrasound, it’s not uncommon to see degenerative tears even in people without shoulder pain, therefore the result of the scan needs to be considered in the context of a patients history.

For tears that are small, or for those who are not able to undergo surgery, physiotherapy is the primary treatment. A physiotherapist will be able to guide you through a series of rehabilitative exercises to help reduce pain, and regain movement and function at the shoulder. It is worth being aware that recovery often takes a good few months, as tendon tissue has a relatively poor blood supply and therefore is slow to heal. A steroid injection can sometimes be helpful for those unable to carry out physiotherapy due to pain.

If you are suffering from shoulder pain and suspect you may have sustained a rotator cuff tear, click here to book an appointment with on of our experienced clinicians.