Chronic Shoulder Pain: Your Rotator Cuff's Call for Help

October 6, 2016 Christopher Walter, DO

chronic-shoulder-painDo you experience constant shoulder pain? You may be suffering from a rotator cuff injury. “Shoulder pain is quite common, but many people don’t realize that it may actually be caused by injured muscles or tendons,” says Christopher Walter, DO, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine at St. Joseph Health Medical Group.

The shoulder is one of the most mobile joints in your body. The rotator cuff is the group of muscles and tendons that cluster together around the shoulder joint, responsible for keeping your shoulder stable in its socket and enabling a range of movements. The rotator cuff allows your shoulder to rotate when you swing your arm up, down, backwards, forwards and around. But sometimes, too much stress on this area can cause injury.

Rotator cuff injuries are usually identified by a dull ache in the shoulder that worsens when you sleep on it. It’s a pain resulting from the partial tearing or swelling of muscles or tendons in that area. “These types of injuries can make simple tasks that involve lifting your arms above your head, such as reaching for an item off of a high shelf or brushing your hair or teeth, very difficult,” Dr. Walter notes.

Most rotator cuff injuries happen over a period of time, although some may happen suddenly. The most common causes of sudden injury are falling on your shoulder, using your arm to break a fall or lifting heavy weights. People who play tennis, pitch baseballs, or participate in any sport or activity that involves constant shoulder movement, are also more susceptible to developing rotator cuff injury over time. Aside from constant, dull pain, rotator cuff injuries can also be identified by a weakness and tenderness in the shoulder, along with a snapping or crackling sound when you move your arm.

If you are experiencing one or more of these symptoms, see your doctor. A series of tests such as x-rays and MRI’s may be used to diagnose the injury, and you may be referred to an orthopedic surgeon to discuss treatment.

“The good news is that most of these types of shoulder injuries, with a bit of physical therapy and rest, can heal on their own,” says Dr. Walter. “But, if one of the tendons is torn, then you may need surgery.”

Dr. Walter employs a less invasive arthroscopic surgery approach to treating shoulder problems. Arthroscopic surgery involves the use of miniature surgical tools, including a small camera called an arthroscope, that are inserted into the shoulder through tiny incisions in the skin. The camera displays pictures on a television screen, allowing the surgeon to guide the special tools to the tear, and repair it. “Because the incisions are so small, scarring is minimal and healing is faster than with open surgery. The procedure is also less painful,” Dr. Walter says.

“The best way to avoid rotator cuff injury is to keep your shoulder muscles strong,” says Dr. Walter. There are many simple exercises you can do at home to help strengthen shoulder muscles and reduce the risk of injury, including shoulder stretches, dumbbell curls, resistance bands, and rotations. Ask your doctor for recommendations on what exercises might be most suitable for you. 

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.


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