Written By: Allison McNamara, PT, DPT
Does this sound familiar – you reach up and across your body to put on a seat belt, lift a jug of juice from the fridge, or reach into the back seat of the car and experience a pain in the front of your shoulder? Do you notice an achiness down the side of your upper arm? Does the pain in your shoulder limit what you can do at home and in your daily life? This shoulder pain might mean you have injured or torn your rotator cuff.
If you experience the above symptoms, Professional Physical Therapy can always help you decide if you need imaging and make a referral to a doctor or to an imaging facility. If diagnosis results in a rotator cuff tear, physical therapy is commonly recommended. The right treatment can make you feel better, keep the injury from getting worse, and help you heal.
What is a Rotator Cuff tear?
The rotator cuff is comprised of a group of four muscles that originate on the shoulder blade and attach onto different spots on the upper arm, and its purpose is to help stabilize the shoulder joint itself as you move your arm. When certain tissues in your shoulder become tight and/or weak, the shoulder joint doesn’t move as smoothly as it should, and this puts stress on the rotator cuff. This added stress can result in inflammation, irritation, and at times, tears in the rotator cuff.
Rotator Cuff Tear Causes
Tears and other injuries to the rotator cuff can occur from a fall or traumatic event, or wearing down your tendons over time (age-related wear and tear). When irritation, inflammation, or tears are present, it can become painful to raise the arm overhead, reach across your body and behind your back, and to lift items. You might feel a sharp pain at the front of your shoulder and achiness down the side of your upper arm – this is pain referred from the rotator cuff issue.
Rotator Cuff Tear Treatment
So, what will physical therapy do for you? Typically, tears in the rotator cuff will not repair themselves or “heal” on their own – therefore, physical therapy plays an important role in restoring mobility and strength and reducing pain in the shoulder. Your physical therapist will:
- Perform an evaluation of your shoulder and assess your mobility, strength, posture, and how well your shoulder blade moves in relation to your arm movements. From this assessment, they will customize a program that will address your areas of weakness and tightness and work towards goals you set with your physical therapist.
- Teach you how to implement skills into your daily life. Performing your exercises in physical therapy and your home exercise program is great, but if you are moving in ways outside of PT that exacerbate your injury, your progress will be limited. When your body experiences pain while performing certain activities, your body adapts the way it moves in order to avoid pain. While these adaptations in movement temporarily avoid pain, they are not optimal for long-term body mechanics; they can result in injury to other areas and further pain.
- Provide instructions on how to avoid increased pain by helping you set up your work space and computer use. Your physical therapist will also give you feedback on how to better engage the muscles in your shoulder when you reach, lift, and carry items in order to prevent pain and promote optimal body mechanics.
- Help you change the way you react to your pain. When your body experiences pain with certain movements due to a rotator cuff injury, it is common for people to become apprehensive about performing those movements because they anticipate pain – their brains send pain signals when they begin those movements and then they limit their movements due to these pain signals. Physical therapy can help you re-wire your brain with the signals your brain and body send each other. For example, when you have a rotator cuff injury and you go to reach overhead, you might shrug your shoulder up, arch your back, twist at your shoulders, and stop before you reach the painful range of motion. Your physical therapist will not only help with your body mechanics, but will also have you go through these motions in a safe and controlled manner; before long, you will be able to move your arm in ways that had been painful previously because you performed those motions comfortably in PT and your brain saw that they were no longer painful – your brain will slowly stop sending pain signals when you move your affected arm.
Rotator cuff injuries are common and in no way a short train ride to surgery; physical therapy can help tremendously with decreasing pain, improving mobility and strength, and allow you to achieve your goals.
If you are experiencing shoulder pain or have a rotator cuff injury, contact Professional Physical Therapy for an assessment and/or physical therapy evaluation, so you can get your life healthier and more comfortable today!