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Published on August 26, 2021

Rotator Cuffs: What You Need to Know About This Common Injury and How to Prevent It

woman playing tennis

By Joel Weber, MD, Physician at EvergreenHealth Orthopedic & Sports Care, Monroe

While rotator cuff injuries are a common reason to seek orthopedic care, many people do not have a clear understanding of what the rotator cuff is and the role it plays in our shoulder. Knowing the basics can help patients better understand their injury and allow them to be more involved in their care. Further, understanding the function of the rotator cuff can help prevent rotator cuff injuries.

The rotator cuff is a group of four muscles that surrounds the ball and socket joint of the shoulder. These muscles – known as the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, subscapularis and teres minor – work together to allow our shoulder to rotate, reach, lift, push, pull and carry. An injury or tear in the rotator cuff often disrupts our shoulder’s ability to easily perform these tasks.

Typically, rotator cuff tears present in two ways: traumatic injury or chronic degeneration. A traumatic injury, such as a car accident, a fall from height, a weight-lifting accident or an injury during a sporting event, can often cause a tear in the rotator cuff. The other potential cause of rotator cuff tears is chronic degeneration overtime. These tears slowly develop over months to years based on repetitive movement and overuse of the shoulder and typically present as slow increasing pain and weakness overtime.

How to prevent a rotator cuff injury

Preventing a rotator cuff injury is not always possible. Some tears are associated with factors that can’t be modified, such as our age and family history. However, there are some things you can do to prevent rotator cuff injuries.

First, some medical conditions, like tobacco use and high cholesterol, have been found to increase the risk of rotator cuff tears. Avoiding these can help protect your rotator cuff.

Beyond this, using proper lifting techniques and asking for help when heavy lifting is required can help avoid injury.

Finally, make sure to incorporate simple rotator cuff strengthening exercises into your typical exercise routine on a weekly basis to prevent tears. Taking a preventative approach to your health is the best way to lower your risk of future rotator cuff injuries.

If you have a rotator cuff tear

If an injury does occur to your shoulder, it is important to recognize the difference between pain from a simple “strain” and pain that could represent an underlying rotator cuff tear. The common signs of a possible rotator cuff tear include significant pain at night, recurrent pain with overhead activities, and a significant loss of strength. Additionally, if your pain does not improve over the course of a week, especially if you’re resting, icing and taking over-the-counter medication, it’s likely time to make an appointment with an orthopedist. If you can point to a specific event where you injured your shoulder, it’s important to share this information with your doctor.

At your orthopedic visit, your physician will spend time examining your shoulder, discussing symptoms and determining if further imaging is necessary. An MRI scan is commonly required to fully evaluate a rotator cuff injury. If a rotator cuff tear is present, you and your physician will customize a treatment plan. Treatment can include oral medications, injections, home exercise, physical therapy or surgery. Many patients with rotator cuff tears are able to improve and recover without surgery. However, since each patient and rotator cuff tear is unique, your orthopedist will create a specific individualized treatment program to help you reach your personal goals.

Joel Weber, MD Meet the Expert

Joel Weber, MD

Dr. Joel Weber is a fellowship trained orthopedic surgeon specializing in the care of athletes of all ages and abilities. He has extensive experience in the care of elite collegiate athletes around the PAC-12 conference, including the University of Washington, University of Arizona and University of Southern California.

He uses this advanced training in surgical and non-surgical treatment techniques to treat complex sports related injuries as well as the full range of orthopedic issues involving the shoulder, knee and hip. He has a special interest in minimally invasive arthroscopic techniques of the shoulder, knee and hip.

Read Dr. Joel Weber's full profile

Learn more about Orthopedics & Sports Medicine at EvergreenHealth