Rotator cuff injury is a common cause of shoulder pain. It is due to a strain or tear in the muscles or tendons of your shoulder. It can develop quickly, but often develops gradually over time. The injury can often be treated using therapies such as physiotherapy and medication. Surgery may be an option in severe cases.
What is a rotator cuff injury?
The rotator cuff is the group of four muscles and their tendons at your shoulder joint. They form a cuff around the head of the upper arm bone (the humerus). They help the shoulder move.
Rotator cuff injury can range from simple inflammation to tears of the muscles or tendons. It is also called rotator cuff syndrome, rotator cuff tear, rotator cuff tendonitis, and shoulder impingement syndrome.
What causes a rotator cuff injury
The main causes of rotator cuff injury are:
- repetitive shoulder movement – from sports like basketball and jobs like painting
- overloading of the joint by heavy lifting
- an accident, such as a fall
- poor posture
- general wear and tear with age
Rotator cuff injury symptoms
It is possible to have rotator cuff injury and not notice any symptoms.
When symptoms become noticeable they can include:
- pain and tenderness in the shoulder
- weakness of the shoulder
- pain when sleeping on the affected side
- numbness and tingling in the affected arm or hand
- restricted shoulder movement
Rotator cuff injury diagnosis
Many things can cause shoulder pain and your shoulder joint is complex. So diagnosing rotator cuff injury can be challenging.
Your doctor will probably ask you about your symptoms, examine you, and ask you to do specific arm movements to see if these cause any difficulty or pain. In some cases, imaging such as X-ray, ultrasound or MRI may also be done.
Rotator cuff injury treatment
Most cases of rotator cuff injury can be treated by:
- avoiding repetitive overhead tasks and lifting away from the body
- managing your pain using pain killers, anti-inflammatory drugs and, in some cases, corticosteroid injections
- treatment such as physiotherapy
If you have a severe injury, surgery may be an option.
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: January 2018