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Rotator cuff injury

5-minute read

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 keep the shoulder stable and help it 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 are the symptoms of a rotator cuff injury?

Symptoms of rotator cuff injury 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
  • limited shoulder movement

It’s possible to have rotator cuff injury and not notice any symptoms.

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What causes a rotator cuff injury?

Rotator cuff injury can be due to

  • an accident — such as a fall
  • repetitive lifting or overhead activities — from sports like tennis and jobs like painting
  • poor posture
  • general wear and tear with age

When should I see my doctor?

If you have a rotator cuff injury and you keep using your shoulder you may cause more damage.

You should see your doctor if you have:

  • injured your shoulder
  • pain in your shoulder and arm

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How is a rotator cuff injury diagnosed?

Many things can cause shoulder pain and your shoulder joint is complex. So, diagnosing rotator cuff injury can be difficult.

Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and examine your shoulder. Your doctor may ask you to do certain arm movements to see if these cause any difficulty or pain.

In some cases imaging tests may be recommended. These may include:

How is a rotator cuff injury treated?

The aim of treatment is to ease the pain and bring back strength to your shoulder. Treatment may include the following.

Changing your activities

Try to stop doing activities that cause shoulder pain.


Physiotherapy is often the first treatment approach used. You may be given rehabilitation exercises to try to fix problems such as stiffness and weakness.


Pain-relief medicines and anti-inflammatory medicines can be helpful in managing pain.

If the pain continues, your doctor may suggest corticosteroid injections.


In some cases surgery may be needed.

Surgery may be suggested if the injury you have is serious and unlikely to get better with rest and physiotherapy.

After surgery, most people will need rehabilitation with exercises and physiotherapy for several months before the shoulder can return to normal.

Can rotator cuff injuries be prevented?

Preventing rotator cuff injuries from happening may not be possible. But there are some things that can be done to lower the chance of you getting an injury.

  • Do regular exercises that strengthen the rotator cuff. This will help keep the muscles strong so that they can cope with the demands of your work or sport.
  • Make sure you have good posture.
  • Do not do repetitive overhead activities.
  • Do not lift heavy objects above the height of your shoulder.
  • Do not lift heavy objects while your arm is outstretched.

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Last reviewed: July 2022

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