Rotator Cuff Tear: Symptoms, Causes, and Recovery

A rotator cuff tear is a prevalent shoulder injury that pertains to damage in the cluster of muscles and tendons important for the stability and motion of the shoulder joint. These tears can occur suddenly due to trauma, or gradually over time as a result of repetitive use and wear.

The shoulder joint, being a ball-and-socket joint, enables an extensive range of movement for the arm. When left untreated, this injury can lead to ongoing pain, weakness, and ultimately loss of function in the affected shoulder.

The rotator cuff is in charge of providing stability to the joint and allows the arm to move smoothly and in a controlled manner.

Key Facts about Rotator Cuff Tears

Rotator cuff tears are common shoulder injuries that can result from sudden trauma or long-term wear and tear. Early diagnosis and a combination of nonsurgical and surgical treatments can improve recovery and restore function.

Prevention strategies and rehabilitation exercises play a crucial role in avoiding complications and re-injury.

Early recognition and intervention can greatly improve the chances of successful recovery and restore proper shoulder function. 

Additionally, understanding the necessary preventive measures and rehabilitation exercises can help reduce the risk of re-injury or future complications.

Types of Rotator Cuff Tear

There are two kinds of rotator cuff tears: partial and complete. A partial tear occurs when one of the tendons is damaged but not completely severed, while a complete tear, also known as a full-thickness tear, involves the tendon being completely torn from the bone.

The supraspinatus tendon is the area usually affected, but other parts of the rotator cuff may also be damaged.

Symptoms of a Rotator Cuff Tear

This type of injury often manifests with a range of common symptoms that can vary from person to person.

Some common symptoms of a rotator cuff tear include:

Pain, the most common symptom, is usually located in the front or outside part of the shoulder and upper arm and can be sharp, aching, or even result in swelling.

The pain may also be felt farther down the arm. In some cases, the affected individual may experience pain in the shoulder at night, making it difficult to sleep or rest comfortably.

Another common symptom is weakness in the affected shoulder and arm.

Individuals experiencing a rotator cuff tear may find it difficult to lift their arm overhead, reach up, carry objects, or even get dressed. This weakness can be due to muscle damage or a large tear in the tendon.

A decreased range of motion in the shoulder is also an indicator of a rotator cuff tear. This can manifest as difficulty reaching out to the side, reaching behind the back, or lifting the arm up in the air.

The range of motion may continue to decline as the injury progresses if no rehabilitation is undertaken.

Additionally, swelling and inflammation may be present around the affected shoulder, particularly if the injury is caused by tendonitis or a tear in the rotator cuff.

These symptoms can further contribute to the overall pain and discomfort experienced by the individual.

Lastly, rotator cuff tear pain may become chronic, especially if left untreated. It is crucial to consult with a healthcare professional if you suspect a rotator cuff injury to receive appropriate diagnosis and treatment.

Causes and Risk Factors

Rotator cuff tears can be caused by several factors, such as overuse due to repetitive overhead movements, acute injuries like falling on an outstretched arm, or the natural aging process. 

Athletes who regularly perform overhead motions, like baseball pitchers and tennis players, have an increased risk of developing rotator cuff injuries.


As people grow older, the risk of a rotator cuff injury increases, with tears being more common in people older than 60.

Degeneration of the tendons and age-related wear and tear can weaken the rotator cuff, making it more susceptible to injury.

Overuse and Sports

Engaging in activities that require repetitive overhead arm motions, such as tennis, rowing, weightlifting, or painting, can lead to rotator cuff injuries over time.

Constant strain on the shoulder muscles and tendons may cause micro-tears, ultimately leading to a more significant tear. Participating in high-intensity sports may also increase the risk of injury.


Accidents, falls, or sudden forceful movements can cause acute rotator cuff tears.

In some cases, the injury occurs due to lifting a heavy object or experiencing a direct blow to the shoulder.


In some instances, arthritis can cause rotator cuff tears.

The inflammation and wear it causes can weaken the tendons, making them more prone to injury.

It is important to be aware of the risk factors and take appropriate preventative measures to minimize the risk of injury.

Diagnosing Rotator Cuff Tears

Diagnosing a rotator cuff tear typically begins with a thorough physical exam conducted by a doctor. During this exam, the doctor will press on different parts of the affected shoulder and move the arm into various positions to assess the range of motion and determine if there is any pain or discomfort.

The strength of the muscles surrounding the shoulder and within the arms will also be examined to assess the potential injury’s severity.

If a rotator cuff tear is suspected, a doctor will usually proceed with imaging tests to confirm the diagnosis and gather more information about the injury. One or a combination of these tests may include X-rays, MRI, and ultrasound scans.

 These tests can help identify the location and extent of the tear, as well as determine if there are any other structural abnormalities or injuries within the shoulder joint.


While X-rays don’t capture soft tissues like tendons and muscles, they can reveal signs of bone spurs, arthritis, or other issues that might be contributing to the shoulder pain.

In some cases, these factors can cause or exacerbate a rotator cuff tear.


Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) provides a detailed view of the soft tissues, like muscles and tendons, as well as bones.

An MRI can help visualize the extent of the tear, its location, and determine whether it is a partial or a complete tear.


Similarly to MRI, ultrasounds generate images of the soft tissues.

This non-invasive, cost-effective, and real-time imaging method can assist in the visualization of rotator cuff tears, particularly in situations where an MRI may not be feasible or necessary.

Upon evaluating the results of the physical exam and imaging tests, a doctor can confidently diagnose the presence and extent of a rotator cuff tear. Once the diagnosis is confirmed, the focus shifts to determining the most appropriate treatment options.

Treatments for Rotator Cuff Tear

The treatment options for a rotator cuff tear are dependent on factors such as the injury’s severity, the patient’s age, and their level of activity.

Non-surgical options include rest, cold compress, pain relief medicines, anti-inflammatory medications, and physical therapy. In cases where conservative treatments are ineffective or the tear is extensive, surgery may be required to repair the torn tendon.

Nonsurgical Treatments

Nonsurgical treatments are often the first approach to managing rotator cuff tears, especially for minor injuries. This approach aims to alleviate pain, promote healing, and restore function to the shoulder. Here are some of the most common nonsurgical treatments:


Giving the injured shoulder a break is crucial for the healing process.

Avoiding activities that cause pain and limiting arm movements can help reduce stress on the affected area.

Physical Therapy

A key component in treating rotator cuff tears, physical therapy focuses on restoring strength, flexibility, and range of motion to the shoulder joint.

A trained physical therapist will guide you through targeted exercises and stretching routines.

Cold Compress

Applying ice packs to the injured shoulder for about 15 minutes several times a day can help reduce inflammation and swelling.

This treatment is particularly beneficial during the initial stages of the injury.


Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen and naproxen can alleviate pain and inflammation.

It’s crucial to follow the dosing instructions and consult your doctor for any concerns.

Steroid injections

In some cases, a healthcare professional may administer an injection directly into the shoulder joint.

This treatment can provide temporary relief from pain and inflammation. However, it’s essential to note that repeated injections may weaken the tendons over time.

Surgical Options and Recovery

When a rotator cuff tear requires surgery, several options are available. The type of surgery used will be dependent on the condition and type of the tear. A partial tear may only require removing the painful, damaged areas called debridement, while a complete tear will involve reattaching the tendon to its original site on the humerus.


Arthroscopic repair is a minimally invasive procedure using a small camera known as an arthroscope to perform the repair.

The surgeon uses small incisions to introduce the arthroscope, visualize the rotator cuff, locate the tear, and reattach the tendon to the bone using specialized tools and stitches. This technique usually results in faster recovery time and presents less risk compared to open surgery.

Open Rotator Cuff Repair

Open repair is a traditional surgery where a larger incision is made to access the shoulder joint. This technique is required when the tear is large or complex.

Open repair can also be used in cases where arthroscopic surgery was unsuccessful. Although open repair is more invasive, it remains a trusted and effective surgical method.

Shoulder Replacement Surgery

In some cases, a shoulder replacement surgery may be necessary. This can involve a traditional shoulder replacement, reverse shoulder replacement, or tendon transfer.

In traditional shoulder replacement, the damaged joint is replaced with a prosthetic joint, whereas in a reverse shoulder replacement, the structure of a normal ball-and-socket is reversed. 

Tendon transfer entails attaching a nearby healthy tendon to the injured rotator cuff to help restore movement and strength.

Recovery Period

The recovery time for rotator cuff surgery varies depending on the individual and the surgical method employed. Typically, the recovery process consists of several phases:

Pain management and immobilization using a sling

Gradual range of motion exercises supervised by a physical therapist

Strengthening exercises to rebuild muscle and restore function

It is important to follow your doctor’s recommendations and physical therapy guidelines to ensure optimal recovery and avoid re-injury. 

While some patients may experience noticeable improvements within three to six months, full recovery can take up to a year or longer, depending on the severity of the injury and the patient’s overall health.

Exercises and Rehabilitation

Engaging in specific activity and a structured rehabilitation program is essential for the recovery and improvement of shoulder function after a rotator cuff tear. 

The main goals of these exercises are to restore flexibility, increase range of motion, and strengthen the shoulder joint and surrounding muscles.

Initially, you may need to focus on gentle stretching exercises to maintain flexibility and avoid stiffness in the affected shoulder. 

Pendulum Exercise

For example, you can try the Pendulum exercise, which involves leaning forward and letting the affected arm hang down, then gently swinging it in small circles, gradually increasing the size of the circles as tolerated.

As your range of motion improves, you can start incorporating active exercises to strengthen the rotator cuff and shoulder blade muscles. 

External Rotation Exercise

One effective activity is the External Rotation exercise. To perform this, keep your elbow bent at a 90-degree angle and, while using a resistance band, slowly rotate your forearm away from your body.

Aim for 3 sets of 10 repetitions each, gradually increasing resistance as strength improves.

Scapular Stabilization Exercise

Another helpful strengthening exercise is the Scapular Stabilization exercise- squeezing the shoulder blades together and maintaining the position for a few seconds, repeating this 10 times per set.

This can help enhance shoulder blade stability, which is crucial for optimal shoulder joint function.

During rehabilitation, you should also include functional exercises that mimic everyday activities, such as lifting objects and raising the arm overhead. 

Wall Slide Exercise

One such example is the Wall Slide exercise. Stand with your back against a wall, and slowly slide your affected arm up the wall as you try to reach overhead, keeping your shoulder blade against the wall throughout the movement.

Professional guidance from a physical therapist is highly recommended to ensure appropriateness and proper execution of these exercises. 

You are more likely to achieve optimal results for shoulder recovery while minimizing the risk of potential setbacks or complications. 

Complications and Prevention

Preventing rotator cuff tears involves maintaining shoulder strength and flexibility through regular exercise, practicing proper technique during sports or work-related activities, and taking breaks to allow the muscles and tendons to rest and recover.

One of the major complications is the weakening of the shoulder joint, making it difficult to perform daily activities that involve arm movements. 

Inflammation of the rotator cuff tendons can result in bone spurs that irritate the tendons, exacerbating the problem. Degeneration of the rotator cuff muscles over time can also lead to further pain and reduced function.

Athletes, especially those participating in sports involving overhead arm movements, are at a greater risk for rotator cuff injuries. 

Orthopedic Surgeons suggests that strengthening the rotator cuff muscles and maintaining shoulder flexibility can help prevent injuries. Here are some preventive measures worth considering:

Pre-activity Warm Up

This helps improve blood flow and flexibility in the muscles and tendons, reducing the risk of injury.

Your warm-up should ideally involve gentle exercises and stretches that specifically target the shoulder muscles. This preparation can enhance muscle flexibility, contribute to better performance, and minimize potential injuries. 

Proper Body Mechanics

Using proper form and technique during activities that involve the shoulder joint can help reduce excessive stress on the rotator cuff.

This means adopting correct postures during movement to minimize undue stress on your rotator cuff. Whether it’s maintaining neutral shoulder positions when lifting weights, or avoiding overhead arm movements that could strain the shoulder, attention to correct form is crucial. 

Strengthen Shoulder Muscles

Regularly performing shoulder-strengthening exercises can help support the upper arm bone (humerus) within the shoulder socket, reducing the likelihood of injury.

Regular, balanced strength training that involves all shoulder muscles can help prevent rotator cuff tears. Always ensure to perform these exercises with correct form and control to avoid unnecessary strain on the shoulder. 

Rest and Monitor

If you experience any pain or discomfort in your shoulder, take a break from activities that cause strain.

Resting and monitoring your body’s response during and after physical activity are vital preventive measures. Overusing the shoulder, especially with repetitive movements, can lead to a rotator cuff tear. Therefore, incorporating ample rest periods is crucial.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are common symptoms of a rotator cuff tear?

Typical symptoms of a rotator cuff tear may include one or a combination of shoulder pain at rest and during activities, strength weakness in the arm, and challenges in lifting or rotating the arm.

The pain may be worse at night, making it difficult to sleep on the affected side. Additionally, there might be a cracking sensation or sound when moving the shoulder in certain positions.

What causes a rotator cuff injury?

A rotator cuff injury can be caused by either a sudden forceful event, such as a sports injury or a fall, or long-term wear and tear. 

Repetitive overhead motions, like those involved in sports or certain occupations like carpentry or painting, are risk factors for rotator cuff injuries. Age is also a factor, as individuals over the age of 60 face an increased risk of injury. 

How is a rotator cuff tear diagnosed?

A rotator cuff tear can be diagnosed through various imaging tests. While X-rays may not show the tear itself, they can help visualize bone spurs or other causes of pain like arthritis. 

Ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can provide images of soft tissues, including muscles and tendons, which can help confirm a torn rotator cuff.

What are some prevention strategies for rotator cuff tears?

Prevention strategies for rotator cuff tears include maintaining shoulder flexibility and strength through regular exercise, practicing good posture, and avoiding repetitive overhead motions or heavy lifting.

Additionally, taking breaks and modifying activities can help reduce the risk of injury.

What are the treatments for a torn rotator cuff?

Treatments for a torn rotator cuff may include rest, pain medication, physical therapy, and, in some cases, surgery. Physical therapy can help restore strength and range of motion. 

Giving ample rest to the affected arm and applying cold compress aid in reducing pain and inflammation. In more severe cases, surgery may be necessary to repair the torn tendon.

Can a rotator cuff tear heal without surgery?

Although most rotator cuff tears can’t recover independently, effective treatment involving pain alleviation and physical therapy can often result in good improvement without surgery. 

In mild to moderate cases, conservative treatment is usually sufficient.