Most people use their shoulder joints on a daily basis without thinking about it. However, if you have ever experienced a rotator cuff injury, you know that it can be quite painful. A shoulder injury can significantly limit the motion in your arm and shoulder for long periods of time, making sports, work and even sleep difficult. Rotator cuff injuries are one of the most common causes of shoulder pain in adults of all age groups, but especially affect those over 40 because these injuries occur from long-term, repeated overhead motions in sports or at work. People that most frequently experience rotator cuff injuries are those with occupations requiring heavy and forceful lifting or repeated overuse, such as carpenters and painters, and serious athletes who compete on a professional or semi-professional level.
What is the rotator cuff?
The rotator cuff is comprised of a group of muscles and tendons that work together to hold the shoulder joint in place. The rotator cuff stabilises the ball of the shoulder within the shoulder joint and assists in the motions of lifting and rotating the arm. Whenever you move your shoulder, your rotator cuff goes into action.
What exactly causes rotator cuff injuries?
A number of things can inflict damage on the rotator cuff. In some cases, an injury such as a fall can cause a strain on or tears in the rotator cuff. When a tear occurs, it is often located in the rotator cuff tendons. These are the tissues that connect the muscles and bones.
Tears may also result from chronic overuse or degeneration of the tendon due to normal age-related wear. Tears can be partial or full-thickness. A partial tear damages the tendon but does not sever it completely. Sometimes a tendon becomes frayed due to a partial tear and, over time, progresses to a full tear. A full thickness tear can result in significant disabilities.
What are the risk factors?
Really almost anyone can suffer from a rotator cuff injury under the right circumstances. However, certain segments of the population are more likely to experience this type of injury.
- Athletes who use a repetitive motion on a regular basis, including baseball pitchers, tennis players and archers
- Construction workers who frequently use overhead repetitive motions, including house painters and carpenters
- People over 40
- Anyone who has a family history of rotator cuff injuries
What are the symptoms of a rotator cuff injury?
If you’ve suffered a rotator cuff injury, you most likely will experience shoulder pain radiating down your arm. The pain may be more prevalent when you are reaching, lifting or otherwise participating in overhead activities. You may also experience enough pain to keep you awake at night if you try to sleep on the affected side. Your arm could become weak and cause you to experience difficulty with routine activities, such as putting a shirt on or combing your hair. Depending on the severity of the tear, you may experience a significant and debilitating amount of pain. However, some rotator cuff injuries produce no symptoms at all.
How are rotator cuff injuries diagnosed?
Rotator cuff injuries are typically diagnosed by a doctor during a physical examination. The doctor may move your arm into various positions and press on different areas of your shoulder. The doctor may also test the amount of your strength in your shoulder areas and arms. In some cases, the doctor may recommend that the following imaging tests be performed:
- X-ray tests can be useful in visualising potential causes for your pain, such as bone spurs. However, an actual rotator cuff tear will not show up in an X-ray.
- An ultrasound uses sound waves to produce a picture of body parts that are being tested. These tests are very effective on soft-tissue areas, such as muscles and tendons. They are also dynamic, meaning that they are able to take images as the shoulder is moving. Ultrasound images are also useful for comparing images of the affected shoulder to a healthy shoulder.
- Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) tests combine radio waves with a strong magnetic field to produce very detailed images. Such images are capable of displaying the complete shoulder structure in great detail.
What can I do to minimise my risks of injuring or re-injuring myself?
There are a number of things that you can do to minimise the occurrence of rotator cuff injuries.
- Change your daily activities:
- When a rotator cuff tears, the damage can get worse over time, especially if you continue to participate in the same activities that contributed to the injury in the first place. To minimise further damage, you should avoid activities that are suspect.
- Wear a shoulder brace that provides extra support and stability:
- Such products are popular with athletes and individuals who are working in jobs where rotator cuff injuries are common. The braces are designed to provide light but firm compression in order to counteract tissue swelling. Some of these products, such as the Thermoskin Adjustable Shoulder with V Stabiliser, are actually endorsed by the Australian Physiotherapy Association and the Australian Institute of Sport.
- Stretch and strengthen your shoulders, arms and chest:
- In addition to focusing on your shoulders, it’s just as important to strengthen the muscles around your shoulder blade and in the back of your shoulder in order to achieve optimum shoulder muscle balance.
Long-term treatment without surgery.
Treating a rotator cuff injury without surgery typically involves treating the pain and working to restore the function of the shoulder and the rotator cuff as much as possible. This usually includes avoiding the activities that tend to aggravate the shoulder and participating in physical therapy and special exercises as laid out in a recovery plan.
To aid in the pain management and recovery in between physiotherapy appointments, the use of a thermal support, such as the Adjustable Shoulder Stabiliser helps not only to increase blood circulation, recovery and reduce associated pain, but also helps to remind of mobility restrictions and help prevent reinjury.