Treating Rotator Cuff Tears

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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Your rotator cuff is the group of muscles that hold your arm in your shoulder socket. A rotator cuff tear is fairly common. You don't need to be a baseball pitcher to tear your rotator cuff. Injury or overuse can cause one of these muscles to tear.

You'll feel pain from this muscle tear. You also won't have normal range of motion. However, it's treatable. The best treatment for one person might not be the best for another. There are many options. Work with your doctor to figure out what would be best for you.

Conservative Measures

Your doctor might suggest simple treatments if your rotator cuff tear is minor. This includes a mix of rest, changing activities, and pain medicine. You rest your shoulder and switch to activities that won't aggravate the injury. You take over-the-counter medicine for any pain or discomfort. If need be, your doctor also might have you wear a brace or a sling for a short time. This restricts movement of your shoulder to let it rest and heal.

Mild rotator cuff injuries may go away over time with these steps. Sometimes, though, they linger. They might even get worse without further treatment. If your pain persists after taking these steps, it’s best to talk with your doctor.

Physical Therapy

Sometimes, the healing process involves exercise. You do specific exercises to strengthen and stretch your rotator cuff and the muscles around it. This helps your shoulder area get stronger and more flexible, which should improve your shoulder movement. This may let you avoid surgery. If you do need surgery for a rotator cuff tear, physical therapy will be an important part of your recovery after surgery.

Steroid Injections

In some cases, rest, physical therapy and over-the-counter pain medicine aren't enough to ease your pain. For these injuries, a cortisone injection might help. Your doctor will inject the medication directly into the affected area. The injection will include an anesthetic. Pain relief should be almost instantaneous. However, the effects tend to wear off over time. You may need to have another injection.

Surgery

There are several reasons you might need surgery for a rotator cuff tear. Perhaps other treatments haven't worked, you're not able to use your shoulder, or the tear may be the result of a serious injury. A surgeon has several ways to make the needed repair. For instance, a small tear may need only trimming or smoothing of the torn muscle. For a partial tear, the surgeon may re-attach the torn rotator cuff to the bone. For a complete tear, the surgeon may stitch the rotator cuff parts back together.

The severity of your injury and the experience of your surgeon will guide the choice of surgical procedure. Traditional "open repair" surgery involves a large incision. You may need this if you have a complex tear. Another option is arthroscopic surgery. It requires just a few small incisions. The surgeon uses tiny instruments, including a camera, to see the area that needs repair. Recovery is usually faster with this method. There's also a newer option called a "mini open repair." It combines the two methods—tiny instruments with an incision that's a few inches long.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Nov 17
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

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  2. Rotator Cuff Injuries. American Society for Surgery of the Hand. http://www.assh.org/handcare/Anatomy/Details-Page/ArticleID/27957/Rotator-Cuff-Injuries

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  4. Rotator Cuff Tears: Frequently Asked Questions. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=a00378

  5. Rotator Cuff Tears: Surgical Treatment Options. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=a00406