Are you feeling tenderness around the shoulder area? A pinching sensation every time you try to move your arm up and down or side to side? If that’s the case, you probably experienced some sort of rotator cuff injury. This issue is fairly common across most sports and it’s an injury that often occurs with gym-goers and in certain jobs as well. The rotator cuff is fundamental to our shoulder mobility and stability. And even though it is extremely important, most people don’t know what it is or what it does. Keep reading to discover whether a damaged rotator cuff is what’s causing your shoulder pain and a few tips on how to treat it.
What Is a Rotator Cuff Exactly?
The rotator cuff is not one muscle or bone, but a group of tendons and muscles that hold the shoulder and the arm together. To understand the importance of the rotator cuff, let’s start with the muscles involved. There are seven muscles that connect your humerus (arm) with your scapula (shoulder) and four of them are within the rotator cuff.
These four muscles have tendons that connect everything together as well, which essentially form the rotator cuff tendon, which then go on to converge with your biceps’ tendon. Simply put, the rotator cuff is the one thing that keeps your shoulder and arm together working like it’s supposed to.
What Does The Rotator Cuff Do?
The rotator cuff has two important functions. It’s in charge of the stabilization and mobilization of your arm and shoulder. Whenever you move your arm away from your body, the rotator cuff is doing its job. The rotator cuff is especially active when you are performing upward arm motions, e.g., pulling something from the ground up using only your arm, turning on an old lawnmower, etc.
Even though the rotator cuff is heavily used when you are doing upward arm motions, that does not mean it gets to rest whenever you are doing anything else with your arm and shoulders. In fact, your rotator cuff is probably doing something whenever you are using your arm or your shoulder. That’s why rotator cuffs injuries are so common, they come from overuse.
How Can I Tell If I Injured My Rotator Cuff?
There are a lot of symptoms that come with a rotator cuff injury. If you have any of these issues for longer than a week, you need to check with a doctor immediately to confirm your injury. The symptoms are:
- Not having a full range of motion.
- Difficulty sleeping on your injured side.
- Pain or tenderness when performing overhead motions.
- Pain or tenderness when trying to reach behind your back.
- Weak shoulder or arms.
If you wish to self-diagnose before you go to a hospital, the best thing you can do is try to perform full range of motion actions with your arm and shoulders:
If you feel pain when doing any of these things, you need to check with your doctor.
The only way to know for sure if to consult a medical practioner, since they have all the ncessary tools to do a proper diagnosis. Generally, a doctor will ask a couple of questions beforehand, to understand how much you use your rotator cuff and to check if wear and tear symptoms are related to your injury. Then, he/she might perform a variety of quick tests to see whether your rotator cuff is injured or not.
If all things point toward a rotator cuff injury, a more in-depth physical exam will most likely take place. Your doctor will test your rotator cuff’s strength and range of motion. As your doctor examines you, he will also try to rule out similar conditions, like a pinched nerve or any other shoulder-related injury.
Once all physical exams are done, there’s one last thing your doctor might do to confirm their suspicions on whether you have rotator cuff issues or not, and that’s to perform a scan. Generally, with rotator cuff issues, an MRI scan is used. That’s because we’re dealing with muscle and tendon issues, not bone-related. An MRI will show whether your rotator cuff is injured or not, and how bad it is. (Rarely, if ever, an x-ray will be used for rotator-cuff-related injuries.)
Can I Treat My Damaged Rotator Cuff Injury at Home?
There are several things you can do to fix damage to a rotator cuff, as long as your injury does not require surgery. A medical procedure is only needed for worst-case scenarios, like a complete tear in your rotator cuff. In this case, the pain would be so excruciating you’d go straight to the doctor given the urgency. If you don’t need surgery to fix your issue, here are some suggestions on how you can go about the recovery stage:
- The very first thing you want to do is apply ice around the injured area. That way, you will decrease your inflammation, reduce your pain, and the healing process will begin. You should apply ice three to five times per day, for 10 to 20 minutes each time. Our ice compression wrap for shoulder can do the trick.
- Also, during the first couple of days, you should immobilize your shoulder. The best thing you can do is buy (or borrow) a sling, to avoid any unnecessary arm movement and more shoulder pain. The less you move your arm, the better.
- After a while, you can start applying heat as well – as long as there is no pain or discomfort when you do it. The same rules apply to heat: 10 to 20 minutes, up to five times per day.
- Once you are feeling better and your strength is slowly coming back to your rotator cuff, you should start thinking about physical therapy for your shoulder. Not only you will have to strengthen your rotator cuff, but once it is completely healed, you will have to do prehab exercises to keep your shoulder healthy. One thing we can’t stress enough, is that you have to take your time when rebuilding the strength in your shoulder. Slowly increase the intensity and weight. The rotator cuff is an extremely weak set of muscles and it cannot sustain much stress on its own, especially during the recovery phase.
- Finally, if the pain is hard to bear, there are over-the-counter medications you can count on. There are also cortisone injections. But remember, you should always talk to a doctor before using any sort of medication.
Hopefully you never have to deal with this type of injury, but if you do, at least you know what’s involved and how to take care of it. If you have experience with rotator cuff issues, we’d love to heard from you. Just leave a comment below!