Shoulder Injuries: Rotator Cuff Tear

The rotator cuff is a collective of four muscle tendons surrounding the shoulder joint. The bony structures of the shoulder joint are inherently unstable (the upper arm bone sits against the shoulder blade much like a golf ball sits on a golf tee). The rotator cuff tendons add significantly to the stability of the joint.

If one of the four tendons is damaged, you may have a rotator cuff tear. Tearing is described as ‘partial thickness’ or ‘full thickness’. A partial thickness tear is akin to fraying a tendon whereas full thickness implies a tear that is worse than fraying, usually a tear involving the majority of the tendon even up to a complete detachment.

Tearing most often occurs from trauma, sports injury or overuse, and risk increases with age.

Symptoms can range from none to severe pain and inability to raise the affected arm. Typical symptoms included mild shoulder pain that increases as the arm is raised. Pain can be quite sharp with sudden movements. There may be decreased capacity to raise the arm along with weakness of the shoulder. It can become difficult to perform daily activities, such as dressing. Delaying treatment may increase the likelihood of compensatory syndromes developing in the upper back, shoulder blade and lower neck, for example muscle spasms, and frozen shoulder syndrome, a condition were the connective tissue surrounding the shoulder becomes chronically stiff and painful.


Conservative, non-surgical care is considered the best initial treatment for rotor cuff injuries. First line treatments we provide in this clinic for rotor cuff injuries include ultrasound therapy, exercise rehabilitation, interferential stimulation, joint alignment and soft tissue mobilization. Even for full thickness tearing, conservative care is recommended initially, in conjunction with a surgical consultation to consider additional conservative measures such as corticosteroid injections. Delaying treatment and chronic injuries do not respond as quickly. For chronic cases, massage therapy can be a useful adjunct to address compensatory muscular stiffness in the upper back and neck.

If you suspect a rotator cuff tear, new or chronic, or any shoulder joint injury, call 612-822-5973 to set up an appointment, during which you will be examined to reach a diagnosis, and a treatment plan recommended.

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