What are the Symptoms of a Rotator Cuff Tear?

Rotator cuff tears are very common injuries.

About Rotator Cuff Injuries

The rotator cuff is made up of four muscles and tendons that attach the shoulder blade to the humerus bone. As the name implies, the rotator cuff allows you to rotate your shoulder. Of the four, the most commonly torn is the supraspinatus.

Tearing of more than one tendon causes more weakness than tearing just one. Massive tears can involve all four tendons but this is rare. Tears over time can get larger as more stress is put on the adjacent tendons.

Unfortunately, once the rotator cuff has a full thickness tear it will never heal. That does not mean it will continue to symptomatic but the shoulder will never return back to normal.

Symptoms of a Rotator Cuff Tear

Symptoms of a rotator cuff tear vary from severe pain and weakness to minimal discomfort reaching up overhead.

Rotator cuff tears from an acute recent injury tend to be much more symptomatic than chronic, older tears.

In an acute tear the injury is typically from lifting something heavy or pulling something like starting a lawn mower. A cuff tear can also occur falling onto your arm.

You may feel a pop or feel a tearing in the shoulder. After the tear it will be difficult to lift your arm overhead and it may feel weak.

Older cuff tears may be due to wear and tear and is more typical in patients older than 60. This type of tear is less painful but there is significant weakness in certain positions such as rotating the arm.

An older tear may not require surgery and is likely to improve with physical therapy.

If You Have Shoulder Pain

If you feel pain in your shoulder or weakness that is sharp or going on for several days see a shoulder specialist and get it checked. If you are young it is unlikely to be a full thickness tear and should improve and even resolve without surgery.

If it is a full thickness tear and you are relatively young and active, you will require surgery to fix it. Those of us who have done hundreds or thousands of these can do the surgery in less than an hour and you will go home the same day.

The best way to diagnose the cuff tear is an exam by an orthopedic shoulder specialist and possibly an MRI.

Dr. Rick Weinstein, MD, MBA is an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine. He is the Director of Orthopedic Surgery at Westchester Health Associates 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.