Shoulder pain can have a significant impact on your daily activities. After all, we constantly use our shoulders and arms for a huge range of things, such as carrying groceries, picking up the kids and brushing our teeth.
A lot of shoulder pain seen by physiotherapists comes from injury to the rotator cuff.
What is the Rotator Cuff?
The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that surround the shoulder joint at the top of the arm. The 4 muscles are:
- Subscapularis muscle
- Supraspinatus muscle
- Infraspinatus muscle
- Teres minor muscle
These muscles are incredibly important and contribute to the shoulder joint being a very mobile joint that moves in very large ranges. Consider how you are able to lift your arm straight up or all the way out to the side, while still rotating it. Unfortunately, this extra mobility can mean less stability in the joint.
So, the rotator cuff muscles are responsible primarily for stabilising the humeral head within the glenoid cavity – in other words, they stabilise the ball and socket of the joint. The other major roles of the rotator cuff muscles are enabling the shoulder to abduct (lift sideways) and rotating it both externally and internally.
In the space between the tendons and bones in the shoulder joint are small sacs filled with fluid called bursae and they act as cushioning pads in the joint.
Common Rotator Cuff Injuries
Almost every shoulder movement you make is supported by the rotator cuff muscles. They get a lot of use, so it is little wonder that they are a vulnerable part of the body. Anybody can experience an injury to the shoulder, not just those who are very active or play sports.
Due to the 4 different muscles mentioned above, there are many possible types of injuries that can occur to the rotator cuff, and they can be quite complex. Some of the most common are:
● Rotator cuff tear – this occurs when the tendon is torn away from the bone.
● Rotator cuff tendinitis – this is acute inflammation of the tendon.
● Rotator cuff tendinopathy – this is chronic inflammation of the area.
● Rotator cuff impingement – this occurs when a tendon rubs or catches on nearby tissue and bone.
● Bursitis – inflammation of the bursa sacs.
Causes of Rotator Cuff Injuries
Genetics may contribute to a person’s susceptibility to rotator cuff injuries, but the two main causes are overuse and trauma.
Overuse of the shoulder will most commonly result in tendinitis or tears. This type of injury is frequent in athletes who play sports that use their shoulders a lot such as tennis, and also those who do repetitive work using their arms, often involving lifting like gardeners, mechanics and tradespeople.
Trauma injuries result from a particular incident such as a car accident, a fall or a sporting accident. The result is often a tear in the rotator cuff.
Symptoms of Rotator Cuff Injuries
While symptoms will differ according to the location of the injury and the severity of the damage, rotator cuff injuries have some common signs:
● Pain – usually felt in the shoulder joint, but pain can refer down to the arm and is often like a dull ache. Pain may also be felt at night time.
● Feeling weak – a weakness in the shoulder when performing daily tasks is an indicator of an injury.
● Reduced range of motion – this is most likely due to feeling pain, rather than any stiffness. Movements that involve lifting your arm will feel painful and restricted.
Everyone is different so the signs of a shoulder injury can vary greatly. Therefore, it is recommended you visit a qualified physiotherapist if you think you may have damaged your rotator cuff muscles. Melbourne Sports Physiotherapy have physios who are experienced specifically in shoulder injuries, and they offer expert advice and a tailored rehabilitation program.
Diagnosis of a Rotator Cuff Injury
Due to the possibility that your shoulder injury may be more complex than you think, it is important to visit a physiotherapist. They can expertly provide an accurate diagnosis as the above symptoms are also common for other shoulder complaints.
A physio’s knowledge of anatomy and pain will ensure they assess other parts of your body too, for instance your spine to rule out pain that may be coming from your neck. Your physio will discuss your general health and daily activities, along with your history and measure your strength, range of motion and muscular control. MRI and diagnostic ultrasound may be used to confirm a diagnosis.
Physiotherapy for Rotator Cuff Injuries
Physio treatment is very successful for shoulder injuries, with only the most severe cases requiring surgery. A physiotherapist will help with pain management by recommending modifications to activities, gentle movement, ice or heat, or electrotherapy.
Once the pain is manageable, exercises will be recommended to strengthen the area, restore control and improve the range of motion of the shoulder. Your physio will guide you through your treatment with the goal of returning to your usual activities.
How to Prevent Rotator Cuff Injuries
Once you are recovered, there are exercises you can incorporate into your lifestyle that will help reduce the likelihood of further rotator cuff injury. Keeping your shoulders strong, stable and moving well will go a long way to keeping them safe from injury.
If you think you may be suffering from a rotator cuff injury, don’t hesitate to speak with the specialists at Melbourne Sports Physiotherapy to discuss rotator cuff physio treatment. You can be confident they will help get you moving pain free as soon as possible and living a healthier, more active life. Call or book an appointment online.