If you shoulder hurts, you may have torn your rotator cuff. But there are also a lot of other things that can cause your shoulder to hurt such as bursitis, or neck pain that travels to the shoulder. If you are having trouble lifting your arm up, then your rotator cuff may be torn. But there are some people who have pain when they lift their arms who don’t have rotator cuff tears. I know it all sounds confusing, and I’m going to try to explain it.
What is a rotator cuff?
In each shoulder you have a rotator cuff, which is a collection of 4 smaller muscles that originate on your shoulder blade and then attach onto your shoulder. If you feel the back of your shoulder blade, you can feel some of your rotator cuff muscles. By the time they connect to your shoulder they aren’t muscles so much anymore, rather they are tendons. When someone tears their rotator cuff, they tear one of these tendons that attach to the shoulder. The shoulder joint itself is not like a ball and socket (like the hip), and more like a golf ball on a golf tee. The rotator cuff is responsible for keeping that golf ball on the golf tee. When you tear your rotator cuff, it interferes with this process which can cause inflammation and in some cases pain.
What happens when you tear your rotator cuff?
The answer to this question depends on how bad the tear is. If the tear is all the way through (full thickness tear), it can cause the shoulder to move funny and overtime lead to arthritis. Sometimes the tear is only part way which can cause pain, but may not lead to anything bad down the road. Strangely enough, there are some people with rotator cuff tears who don’t have any pain! This means that there are likely a lot of people who have torn rotator cuffs and don’t even know it. Fortunately, the rotator cuff is not a ticking time bomb and if it doesn’t hurt then the best thing to do is to leave it alone.
How do I know if my rotator cuff is torn?
If you have weakness and pain lifting your arm up after you did “something” to it, then you may have torn it. Some people may have pain now, but tore their rotator cuff a long time ago and didn’t even know it. The best way to know if your rotator cuff is torn is to get an MRI which can directly see the rotator cuff, and see if it’s torn. But as I said, even if you do happen to have a tear, it may not be the source of your pain. You might have a partial rotator cuff tear, but bad bursitis, and it’s actually the bursitis that’s giving you grief! The only way to know for sure is to get an evaluation by an orthopedic doctor, or someone who is trained in the shoulder. Whoever you end up seeing, just make sure they take the time to listen to you, and that they are treating you and not just what the MRI shows.
I hope I was able to give you some good information and help you on your path to recovery. If there are any questions you have that I didn’t answer, I encourage you to contact me.
-Written by Dr. Daniel Paull