Matthew Gavin, MD, is an orthopedic surgeon at Inova Loudoun Hospital. He is board-certified in orthopedic surgery and has a special interest in shoulder problems, knee problems and sports injuries. 

Shoulder pain is a common problem — especially if you’re an athlete or like to stay active. Often, those pains are caused by rotator cuff injuries. Every year, U.S. doctors treat millions of people with these injuries. I see them in my own practice just about every day.

How do you know whether your sore shoulder is a rotator cuff problem? Here’s what to know about these injuries — and how to prevent them.

What Causes Rotator Cuff Injuries?

First, a quick anatomy lesson: The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that attach the upper arm bone to the shoulder blade. It’s involved in any movements that involve lifting or rotating your shoulder.

When the tendons in the rotator cuff are damaged, you can experience symptoms such as:

  • Pain with movement, especially when you lift your arm over your head
  • Pain when lying on the injured shoulder
  • Cracking sounds when you move your arm
  • Weakness or inability to move your arm normally

Types of Rotator Cuff Injuries

There are two different ways that the rotator cuff can be injured.

  • Acute injuries happen suddenly. A tendon might tear, for instance, if you lift something the wrong way or fall and land on your outstretched arm.
  • Degenerative injuries happen from wear and tear over time. This is usually the result of repetitive motion, and is common in athletes like tennis players, baseball players, swimmers or weightlifters. People with jobs that require overhand motions, like painters or electricians, can also be at risk. Most rotator cuff injuries fall into this category.

In both cases, there’s a spectrum of rotator cuff injuries ranging from mild to more serious:

  • Tendonitis is inflammation of the tendon.
  • A partial tear occurs when the tendon is partially ripped but not completely severed.
  • A complete tear occurs when the tendon separates from the bone.

Shoulder Pain Prevention

While rotator cuff tears and strains are common, there are things you can do to prevent them:

  1. Warm up. If you’re going to do an activity that might put you at risk, such as swinging a tennis racket or a softball bat, start with some light exercise to warm up your muscles. Good warm-ups include jogging, using a stationary bike or jumping jacks. If you’re lifting weights, start with set of lighter weights before moving to heavier ones.
  2. Watch your form. It’s important to use good technique when lifting weights or performing new types of exercise. It’s easy to get injured if you aren’t paying close attention to proper form. If you’re inexperienced or trying a new type of activity, get some instruction from an expert.
  3. Strengthen your muscles. Keeping muscles strong can help prevent injuries to the rotator cuff. It’s important to go for balance. Lots of people work out their chest and shoulders but don’t exercise their upper back. Strengthening all of those muscle groups will help decrease stress on the rotator cuff.
  4. Don’t ignore pain. Forget the saying “no pain, no gain.” If you experience pain when you lift a weight or throw a ball, it’s a sign that something is wrong. Tendonitis and partial tears can become worse problems over time, so ignoring the pain is likely to set you up for more serious injury.    

Treating Shoulder Pain

Shoulder pain can interfere with all sorts of everyday activities, from washing your hair to playing the sports you love. The good news is that most rotator cuff injuries get better with time, rest and physical therapy. For larger tears, surgery can repair the tendon and get you moving again.  

When should you worry? If you fall or move the wrong way and experience sudden symptoms, it’s a good idea to see a doctor sooner than later. If the pain comes on gradually, I recommend taking it easy for a couple of weeks to see if it resolves on its own. If the pain persists, a doctor can determine whether there’s damage to your rotator cuff.

Ready to treat your shoulder pain? Inova Orthopedics experts specialize in athletic injuries, arthritis, joint replacement and all other types of orthopedic injuries. Find an Inova orthopedic specialist near you.

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