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Consultant examining man's shoulder for rotator cuff injury
By In-house Team, Circle Health Group

Coping with a rotator cuff injury

Read about what a rotator cuff injury entails and its impact on your daily life. Discover a variety of coping mechanisms, from at home support to non-surgical treatments. Although surgery is a last resort, we touch on what circumstances might need such an intervention. Your path to better shoulder health begins here.

A rotator cuff injury can hamper your day-to-day activities, making simple tasks like reaching for an item on a top shelf a painful endeavour. It's important to understand what a rotator cuff injury is, how it occurs, and the various treatment options at your disposal. Recognising the anatomy of your shoulder and the nature of this injury is the first step toward a successful recovery journey.

What is a rotator cuff injury?

Understanding the anatomy

coping with rotator cuff injury illustration of an xray depicting pain in shoulderYour shoulder is a complex joint that owes its range of motion to its unique structure. At the main part of this joint lies the rotator cuff, which is made up of muscles and tendons. Specifically, the rotator cuff is a group of four muscles and tendons that form around the head of your upper arm bone, forming a cuff around the shoulder joint. This cuff holds your arm in place while allowing it the freedom to move around.

A healthy rotator cuff ensures smooth, pain-free movement of the shoulder. However, the rotator cuff's positioning makes it prone to injury from sudden movements, overuse, or general wear and tear. When any part of the rotator cuff is injured or irritated, the result can range from mild discomfort to severe, debilitating pain, often accompanied by a loss of motion.

The upper arm and shoulder joint

The connection between the rotator cuff and the shoulder joint reveals why an injury can be quite disruptive. The upper arm bone, known as the humerus, fits into a shallow socket in your shoulder blade.

The rotator cuff's muscles and tendons hold the humerus firmly in this socket, creating stable, controlled movement. An injury to this can impair the shoulder's function, which is why understanding how this affects you is important.

Common causes and types of rotator cuff injury

Rotator cuff injuries mainly come from two main sources: the gradual wearing-down of the tendon structure over time, or acute injuries caused by specific incidents or activities.

Wear and tear over time

As we age, the tendons and muscles of the rotator cuff can wear down. This is a natural process we all go through as we age but can be sped up in people who do a lot of overhead motions, common in professions or sports such as painting, carpentry, or tennis.

The continuous use and potential overuse of these tendons cause micro-tears and inflammation leading to a condition known as rotator cuff tendonitis or tendinosis.

Acute injuries from activities or accidents

A sudden fall, a direct blow to the shoulder, or a sudden, forceful motion can cause acute rotator cuff injuries. These incidents can cause the tendons to tear partially or completely from the bone.

Types of rotator cuff injuries

Rotator cuff injuries come in different forms, including tendinitis, strains, and tears.

  • Tendonitis is the inflammation of the tendons due to overuse or heavy lifting
  • Strains and sprains are minor injuries that usually heal with rest and proper care
  • Tears are more severe and occur when the tendons are separated from the bone, often requiring more extensive treatment or even surgery

Among the various causes of shoulder pain, rotator cuff problems are fairly common. If your shoulder pain continues, it's wise to get it checked for a possible rotator cuff injury.

Recognising the symptoms

Detecting a rotator cuff injury early can significantly impact the treatment's effectiveness and the duration of recovery. Here are common symptoms associated with rotator cuff injuries:

  • Pain when trying to lift your arm: Experiencing sharp pain when attempting to lift your arm overhead or while holding something heavy often indicates a rotator cuff injury
  • Difficulty with range of motion: Difficulty or discomfort while trying to move your arm, especially in certain directions, is a telling sign. You might find it hard to reach behind your back or lift objects overhead
  • Aches that worsen at night: Persistent aching in the shoulder, especially at night, can not only indicate a rotator cuff injury but also disrupt your sleep
  • Common cause of shoulder pain: Among the various causes of shoulder pain, rotator cuff problems are fairly common. If your shoulder pain continues, it's wise to get it checked for a possible rotator cuff injury

Home remedies for relief

Getting treatment for a rotator cuff injury quickly can prevent further damage and speed-up the healing process. Here are some home remedies that can provide relief:

Importance of early intervention and managing symptoms

Early intervention can often reduce severity of a rotator cuff injury. Recognising the symptoms and taking immediate action can prevent further damage and speed up recovery.

Rest and avoidance of aggravating activities

Rest is also important. Try to avoid activities that make your shoulder pain worse. Give your shoulder time to heal before gradually reintroducing movement.

Cold compress to reduce inflammation

Apply a cold compress to the injured area for 15 to 20 minutes, several times a day, to reduce inflammation and numb the area, which can alleviate pain.

Over-the-counter pain relievers

Non-prescription anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen can provide temporary relief. However, they should not be used as a long-term solution, and it’s advisable to consult with a healthcare professional for personalised advice.

These initial steps show how you can manage rotator cuff injuries at home. In the next section, we will look at non-surgical professional treatments for more persistent or severe cases.

Physiotherapy is crucial for recovering the range of motion in your shoulder. A physiotherapist can guide you through exercises that gently stretch and strengthen the muscles and tendons around the shoulder joint.

Non-surgical treatments

When dealing with a rotator cuff injury, a non-surgical approach is often the first line of defence. Here are some common non-surgical treatments that can provide relief and promote healing:


Exercises to improve 'range of motion'

Physiotherapy is crucial for recovering the range of motion in your shoulder. A physiotherapist can guide you through exercises that gently stretch and strengthen the muscles and tendons around the shoulder joint.

Strengthening exercises

Strengthening exercises target the muscles around your shoulder to provide better support and reduce the load on the rotator cuff tendons. These exercises, when done consistently, can improve shoulder strength and functionality.

Importance of professional evaluation

Engaging with a physiotherapist who can tailor an exercise regimen based on your specific injury and pain threshold is essential. They can provide a comprehensive plan that safely progresses to avoid further injury.

Steroid injections

What is a steroid injection?

Steroid injections, often containing corticosteroids, are injected directly into the shoulder joint to ease inflammation and pain associated with a rotator cuff injury.

How it helps reduce inflammation

Corticosteroids are potent anti-inflammatory agents that can provide temporary relief from pain and inflammation, allowing you to take part in physiotherapy comfortably.

Pain management


Pain management may include over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications or prescription pain relievers. The aim is to control pain effectively so you are able to take part physiotherapy sessions to improve your symptoms.

Consult with a doctor

You should always consult with your healthcare provider to understand the most appropriate pain management strategy for your condition. Long-term use of certain medications can have adverse effects, so always speak to your healthcare professional if you have any concerns.

In this video, Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon, Mr Andrew Chambler from The Bath Clinic shares important information about what to expect from rotator cuff repair surgery.

When is rotator cuff surgery necessary?

The decision to have surgery usually comes after all non-surgical treatments have been tried and have not been effective.

Rotator cuff surgery

Rotator cuff surgery aims to re-attach torn tendons to the bone. The surgical approach may vary from minimally invasive arthroscopic repairs to traditional open surgery, depending on the extent of the injury.

When is it necessary to re-attach the rotator cuff

Surgery may be the best approach when there's a complete tear of the tendon, significant loss of shoulder function, or persistent pain that doesn't improve with non-surgical treatments.

Recovery and rehabilitation

Post-surgery physiotherapy

Physiotherapy is a cornerstone of recovery post-surgery. It's vital to stick to your rehabilitation program to regain shoulder strength and functionality.

Expected recovery timeline

Recovery timelines vary from person to person. Generally, minor repairs may heal in three to six months, while more extensive surgery may take up to a year for full recovery.

Prevention and maintenance

Maintaining a healthy shoulder joint isn’t just about addressing issues as they happen, but proactively working to prevent them. Here’s how you can help keep your shoulders strong and mobile, potentially avoiding or reducing the impact of a rotator cuff injury.

Regular exercises to strengthen shoulder muscles

Engage in a balanced exercise routine that targets the rotator cuff and the surrounding muscles. Simple resistance band exercises, shoulder presses, and lateral raises can be highly beneficial in building shoulder strength.

Avoiding repetitive overhead movements

Repetitive overhead motions can strain your rotator cuff. If your daily routine or job requires you to make regular overhead movements, ensure you’re practising good form, take breaks, and strengthen your shoulder muscles to stay as strong as possible.

Importance of listening to your body and recognising early signs

Should you experience any shoulder discomfort or loss of mobility, speak to your healthcare professional as soon as possible to keep further injuries to a minimum.

Take action towards shoulder health

Managing and addressing rotator cuff injuries goes beyond initial treatment and calls for a holistic approach including prevention, ongoing care, and sticking to recommended physiotherapy regimens.

Early diagnosis and prompt treatment of a rotator cuff injury increase the likelihood of a full recovery. The faster you get help and support the more likely you are to keep your rotator cuff in good condition.

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If you're concerned about symptoms you're experiencing or require further information on this subject, talk to a GP or see an expert consultant at your local Circle Hospital.