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Rotator Cuff Injuries Are Common, But Can Be Prevented

What are rotator cuff injuries? A shoulder consists of four joints and the tendons of several muscles.

The shoulder joint itself has a ball-and-socket shape, permitting great mobility for your upper arm. Shoulder problems occur when one or more of the four main "ball" joints become damaged or injured.

One of the most common types of injury to the rotator cuff is damage to the tissues surrounding the rotator cuff tendon located in each shoulder. This tendon connects your upper arm bone (humerus) to your shoulder blade (scapula). When these tendons are damaged, you may experience pain and weakness in your arms that can last for days, weeks, months, or even years if undiagnosed and untreated. Other injuries to the shoulder area and structures may also cause similar symptoms. When pain or weakness is severe enough, it can limit your activities at work or in sports. It can even keep you from lifting your arm above your head.

Signs that Something Might Be Wrong With Your Rotator Cuff

There’s several signs that your rotator cuff may be damaged in some way. Things to look out for include: 

  • Pain in your arm - The pain may be constant or occur just when you lift something heavy. For example, the most common symptom of a torn rotator cuff is shoulder pain that comes and goes. As the injury progresses, pain becomes more intense, limits movement, and may feel like it's coming from an area other than the shoulder joint itself (like up into your neck).
  • Sensation changes in the arm - When part of the rotator cuff has been injured, there can be a sensory loss (numbness) or tingling in areas of skin served by nerves close to where they attach to bones at your shoulder. An example would be a "pins-and-needles" feeling in one or more fingers.
  • Loss of strength or function - As your injury progresses, using the arm becomes difficult and painful. For example, you may not be able to lift your arm over your head without pain or having trouble lifting objects that used to seem light. In addition, the shoulder can't move in ways that it once did, making simple tasks difficult or impossible until treated by an orthopedic surgeon with experience handling rotator cuff injuries.

Common Rotator Cuff Problems

Rotator cuff problems are common and can easily happen to your shoulder. The most typical problem is a partial or complete tear in a tendon that makes up part of the rotator cuff. This injury occurs when a piece of bone, called the "head" of your upper arm, bumps into one of the tendons. Tendons attach muscle to bone and allow for strength and flexibility in movement.

Tendons are similar to ropes in construction, and they fray when rubbed against bone. Your middle layer of tissue, called "fascia," surrounds the rotator cuff tendons, so they don't rub against your shoulder blade as you move your arm. However, the head of your upper arm bone (humerus) can sometimes push into this middle layer causing friction between the humerus and tendon, which is what causes them to tear.

An injury that involves simple rubbing or bumping usually doesn't cause too much damage. But injuries that happen with a sudden pull on the muscle can result in a more serious problem as you use your arms after the pain starts to go away. Small bumps can turn into large tears over time unless treated by an orthopedic surgeon.

How A Rotator Cuff Becomes Injured

Because most of the shoulder muscles are held together by a thick band of connective tissue called the "rotator cuff," it's often referred to as such. These four tendons help hold your arm in position and, with other muscles, allow you to lift your arm upward and forward.

Rotator cuff problems occur when one or more of these tendons gets damaged. The shoulder comprises four joints with ball-and-socket shapes, permitting great mobility for your upper arm bone (humerus). Shoulder injuries usually happen when one or more of these joints become damaged due to trauma or overuse. When this happens, you may experience pain and weakness in your arms that can last for days, weeks, or months.

Tendons get injured when there is sudden stress on the rotator cuff that comes from lifting something heavy, falling, playing sports (such as tennis, baseball, and golf), or using machines at work. Some older adults may experience pain in the shoulder without an injury because of a breakdown of cartilage when tendons go into their sockets. Surgeons who handle these injuries know how to help you recover quickly from your surgery. They understand how to make you regain strength and flexibility along with relief from pain after rotator cuff repair treatment.