A rotator cuff tear is a common cause of pain and disability among adults. In 2013, almost 2 million people in the United States went to their doctors because of a rotator cuff problem.
Your shoulder is made up of three bones: your upper arm bone (humerus), your shoulder blade (scapula), and your collarbone (clavicle). The shoulder is a ball-and-socket joint: the ball, or head, of your upper arm bone fits into a shallow socket in your shoulder blade.
Your arm is kept in your shoulder socket by your rotator cuff. The rotator cuff is a group of four muscles that come together as tendons to form a covering around the head of the humerus. The rotator cuff attaches the humerus to the shoulder blade and helps to lift and rotate your arm.
When one or more of the rotator cuff tendons is torn, the tendon no longer fully attaches to the head of the humerus.
There are two main causes of rotator cuff tears: injury and degeneration.
If you fall down on your outstretched arm or lift something too heavy with a jerking motion, you can tear your rotator cuff. This type of tear can occur with other shoulder injuries, such as a broken collarbone or dislocated shoulder.
Most tears are the result of a wearing down of the tendon that occurs slowly over time. This degeneration naturally occurs as we age. Rotator cuff tears are more common in the dominant arm.
Because most rotator cuff tears are largely caused by the normal wear and tear that goes along with aging, people over 40 are at greater risk.
People who do repetitive lifting or overhead activities are also at risk for rotator cuff tears.
The most common symptoms of a rotator cuff tear include:
Tears that happen suddenly, such as from a fall, usually cause intense pain. There may be a snapping sensation and immediate weakness in your upper arm.
Tears that develop slowly due to overuse also cause pain and arm weakness.
If you have a rotator cuff tear and you keep using it despite increasing pain, you may cause further damage. A rotator cuff tear can get larger over time.
In about 80% of patients, nonsurgical treatment relieves pain and improves function in the shoulder.
Nonsurgical treatment options may include:
Signs that surgery may be a good option for you include:
This illustration of the shoulder highlights the major components of the joint.
In most rotator cuff tears, the tendon is torn away from the bone.