How Do You Know if Shoulder Pain Is from the Rotator Cuff?

Pain in the shoulder is often related to rotator cuff and may be an actual tear of the cuff.

So how do you know if the shoulder pain is from the rotator cuff?

The rotator cuff is made up of 4 tendons that attach to the humeral head. These allow rotation and lifting of the arm. Of the four tendons, the supraspinatous is the most commonly injured and torn.

Tear of this cuff tendon results in weakness bringing the arm out to your side. The second most commonly torn rotator cuff tendon is the infraspinatous. This results in weakness in rotating your arm away from your body (external rotation).

Swelling, Clicking, Arthritis

People with rotator cuff tears usually do not have swelling of the shoulder or arm.

People with tears may have clicking in the shoulder but this may be a sign of arthritis and more commonly is just a sign of inflammation in the shoulder.

Arthritis symptoms are more grinding than clicking and is usually worse in the morning when first moving the arm.

Arthritis of the shoulder is also more likely to cause the arm and shoulder to swell. Pain with arthritis can be severe.

How Rotator Cuff Tears Happen

An acute rotator cuff tear is often caused by lifting something heavy and you feel a tear or pop when it happens.

Many of my patients tear their rotator cuff pulling something such as a cord for lawn mower or snow blower. Tears also occur from falling on the arm or shoulder.

Another common symptom of a rotator cuff tear is loss of motion of the shoulder. This may because of pain but it also may be that the muscles of the shoulder don’t allow you to move the shoulder because they are no longer attached. This is called a dead arm.

If you suspect that you may have torn your rotator cuff see a shoulder specialist.

A good exam will diagnose the cuff tear and an MRI can confirm this. Pain in the shoulder is usually not a rotator cuff tear but if you have significant weakness, loss of motion, a “dead arm,” or prolonged symptoms call an orthopedic shoulder specialist.

Dr. Rick Weinstein, MD, MBA is an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine. He is the Director of Orthopedic Surgery at Westchester Sport and Spine and has subspecialty training in knee and shoulder surgery, including minimally invasive surgery and arthroscopy. Dr. Weinstein is a Board Examiner for the American Board of Orthopedic Surgeons, determining certification for other orthopedic surgeons.