Is shoulder pain caused by your rotator cuff?


Are you plagued by shoulder pain? You aren’t alone.

Recent data shows that nearly 2 million Americans visit their doctor each year complaining of shoulder pain. And, human nature being what it is, that means many more just suffer in silence afraid of hearing those three terrible words: Torn rotator cuff.

In the past, that diagnosis meant an invasive surgery and months of rehabilitation and pain. These days? Not so much.


What is a rotator cuff?

The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that surround the shoulder joint, keeping that ball joint atop your humerus or upper arm bone firmly situated in the shallow socket of your clavicle. But, with overuse or a sudden injury – often in sports or jobs that include a lot of overhead movements – that group of muscles and tendons can tear.

The problem may start – according to Dr. Michael Griewe, an orthopaedic surgeon and specialist in shoulder repairs at OrthoCincy in Edgewood – as a feeling of weakness when you take the milk out of the refrigerator with your affected arm. Or if the cuff is simply degenerating and hasn’t torn, you may start to feel tightness in the shoulder or arm.

“Rotator cuff problems can be very debilitating,” said Dr. Griewe. “Patients will come into my office and tell me they’ve had shoulder pain for a long time, six or seven months, and it really hasn’t gotten any better. Or they may say that they recently injured the shoulder in a fall or a work accident. They tell me that every time they raise the arm, they feel pain down the side of the arm, such as when they reach up to grab something from a shelf.”

It may start as a minor nuisance, but grow into a significant disability, affecting the way you live and work. Left untreated, the blood supply to the rotator cuff can be diminished, leaving your body incapable of repairing the damage by itself with rest or movement modification.


Common injury for athletes and over-50 set

Rotator cuff injuries tend to be more common among athletes who perform a lot of overhead movements, like baseball, tennis and volleyball players. But, these types of tears are also a common complaint for those whose work requires repetitive lifting and overhead activity, and those older than 50. In fact, Dr. Griewe said that studies show that you have almost a 50 percent chance of tearing this critical area if you’re in your 50s, and that increases to 60 percent when you turn 60.

Occasionally, some who’ve experienced a rotator cuff tear don’t feel any real pain at all. In these cases, physical therapy may be all that’s needed to turn a touchy shoulder into a relatively pain-free one.

“Unfortunately, research has shown that a rotator cuff tear won’t heal on its own, and tears usually get bigger over time,” said Dr. Griewe. “If the tear is ignored, patients may lose the ability to lift the arm or even develop arthritis. That is why I recommend to many of my patients that they have the tear repaired. ” Only the patient and doctor can decide if surgery is right for that individual.”


Do I need surgery?

The good news is that only a third of patients will require surgery, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. But non-surgical treatments are not a permanent fix for this problem. And since the joint remains weak, the chances that the injury will worsen increase as time goes by.

But even if your doctor opts for surgical treatment, you may not have to have a large incision. Many of these procedures are now performed using new technologies that allow surgeons to use small incisions to get into the joint with tiny cameras and instruments to make the needed repairs during outpatient procedures. Smaller incisions mean less chance of complications and shorter recovery times.

“Patients can expect to be in some discomfort for two or three days after surgery, and it can be six weeks before the pain fades completely,” Dr. Greiwe said. “The key is getting motion back, which comes about six weeks after their surgery and at three months they typically have their full strength back.”

Those patients who use their shoulder muscles more, like athletes and those holding certain physical jobs, will take anywhere from one to nine months to get fully back into the swing of things after a rotator cuff repair, Dr. Greiwe said.


If you suspect your rotator cuff is to blame for your shoulder pain, visit the  St. Elizabeth Physical Therapy  office at  Edgewood. The physical therapists at St. Elizabeth are highly trained to deal with  the following issues:

  • Arthritis
  • Balance and Vestibular Rehabilitation
  • Cerebral Palsy
  • Chronic Pain/Fibromyalgia
  • Custom Orthotics
  • Gait Retraining
  • Orthopaedics and Post Joint Replacement
  • Incontinence
  • Manual Therapy
  • Massage Therapy
  • Osteoporosis
  • Post-Mastectomy/Lymphedema
  • Spina Bifida
  • Sports Medicine
  • TMJ/D   (Temporomadibular Joint Disorder)
  • Traumatic Brain Injury, Stroke and other neurological deficits/disorders
  • Women’s Health
  • Women’s Health Physical Therapy
  • Work Rehabilitation