How to Treat, Avoid a Rotator Cuff Tear

Another common cause of shoulder pain, especially in the over-40 set, is a rotator cuff tear. A rotator cuff tear may result suddenly from a single traumatic event, but is more likely to develop gradually because of repetitive overhead activities.

People who are especially at risk for overuse are those who engage in repetitive overhead motions. These include participants in sports such as baseball, tennis, weight lifting and rowing. Occupations that make people vulnerable include house painting and jobs that involve heavy lifting.

Symptoms and signs of a rotator cuff tear:

  • Recurrent, constant pain, particularly with overhead activities
  • Pain at night that prevents you from sleeping on the affected side
  • Muscle weakness, especially when attempting to lift the arm
  • Catching and grating or cracking sounds when the arm is moved.
  • Limited motion
  • Usually occurs in the dominant arm (right shoulder for right-handed people; left shoulder for left-handed people)
  • May be triggered by a specific injury or shoulder dislocation

Common treatment for a rotator cuff includes rest, applying cold and heat, the use of a sling to immobilize the shoulder while it heals, strengthening and stretching exercises under the supervision of a physical therapist, anti-inflammatory medications called NSAIDs, ultrasound treatments, and corticosteroid injections.

If the tear doesn’t respond to these treatments or if it is completely through the tissue, surgery is needed to repair the tendon. Following surgery, you’ll need to perform exercise to strengthen the muscles and restore range of motion. It may take six months or more for the shoulder to return to normal.

The best way to prevent rotator cuff tears is to avoid repetitive activities with the arm at shoulder level or higher, especially if they cause pain. If you can’t avoid them, you may be able to adjust how you carry them out so you put less strain on your shoulder.