Rotator Cuff Tear

A rotator cuff tear is a common source of shoulder pain. Read on to learn what a rotator cuff tear is, the causes and symptoms, and how it is diagnosed and treated.

Dr. Benjamin W. Szerlip, DO, has helped hundreds with shoulder pain from a torn rotator cuff return to the activities they love. Give our office a call to see how he can help you in Austin, Texas.

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“I was very pleased with my experience of my shoulder surgery. My pain was easily managed and I’m looking forward to getting back on the golf course. Dr. Szerlip was easy going and you can tell he loves his job and cares about you!” — Melody G. 

Anatomy of Your Rotator Cuff

Your rotator cuff consists of four muscles that cover the head of your upper arm bone. The rotator cuff helps stabilize the “ball” of your upper arm bone in the “socket” and maintains the stability of your shoulder joint. These rotator cuff muscles give you the ability to rotate your arm and raise it overhead.

What is a Rotator Cuff Tear?

A rotator cuff tear is when one or more of the rotator cuff tendons become partially or completely detached from the head of the humerus. The different types of rotator cuff injuries are as follows:

  • Partial tear: The rotator cuff tendon does not completely detach from the bone. The tear only goes partially through the thickness of the tendon.
  • Full-thickness tear: The rotator cuff detaches from the bone. A full-thickness tear can have different features including: 
    • Retraction: when the complete tear continues to propagate and become larger
    • Atrophy: When muscle is replaced by fat which is more common than chronic tears or nerve damage. 

What Are the Causes of a Rotator Cuff Tear?

The two main causes of a rotator cuff tear are injury and wear and tear.

Falling on an outstretched arm or lifting something with a jerking motion can cause your rotator cuff tendon to tear. This type of injury can occur with other injuries, such as a broken collar bone, wrist fracture, or dislocated shoulder.

The majority of tears occur through the wearing down of the tendon tissue, which occurs slowly over time. One way this may happen is through repetitive stress. Repetitive use of your rotator cuff muscles and tendons at work or playing sports can put you at risk of tears.

As we get older, there is a reduced blood supply to the rotator cuff tendons. This can affect the ability of your tendons to repair, which can lead to a tear.

The Symptoms of a Rotator Cuff Tear

Rotator cuff tear symptoms can include the following:

  • Pain while at rest, including at night, especially when lying on the affected shoulder
  • Pain when you lift and lower your arm or with specific movements
  • Weakness when you raise or rotate your arm
  • You hear a cracking sound in your shoulder with certain movements

How Are Rotator Cuff Tears Diagnosed?

Your doctor will begin by considering your medical history and asking about your symptoms. He will then examine your shoulder for areas of tenderness. You may be asked to move your shoulder in certain positions to measure your range of motion and arm strength.

Your doctor may also request imaging tests such as X-rays or MRI scans. An X-ray will only show the structure of the bone and bone spurs. However, the result will determine whether there is arthritis in the joint or not. An MRI scan can show the extent of the tendon tear.

Treatment Options for a Rotator Cuff Tear

It is vital to get a rotator cuff tear treated because it can worsen over time. Treatment will also help you make a quicker recovery. Treatment aims to restore function and reduce pain. Your doctor will tend to try non-surgical treatments before surgery.

Non-Surgical Treatments

Non-surgical treatment can relieve pain and improve function in the shoulder in about 80-85% of patients. Non-surgical treatments include the following:

  • Rest
  • Activity modification
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Physical therapy
  • Injections: Steroid (Cortisone) or Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP)

Surgical Treatment

Rotator cuff surgery may be recommended if your pain does not improve with nonsurgical methods. You may also be recommended for surgery if you need to use your arms for work or sports.

Surgery may also be a good option if the following applies to you:

  • You have a full thickness tear 
  • You have a tear and other non-surgical treatments haven’t worked
  • You have significant weakness and loss of function in your shoulder
  • Your tear was caused by a recent, acute injury

Rotator cuff repair is often performed using an arthroscope.
Arthroscopic rotator cuff repair usually involves re-attaching the torn tendon to the head of the humerus (upper arm bone).

How Can a Rotator Cuff Injury Be Prevented?

You can prevent a rotator cuff injury by keeping your muscles and tendons flexible. Try to incorporate strengthening exercises and stretching into your weekly routine with specific emphasis on muscles around the shoulder blade.

Schedule an Appointment Today!

If you have been experiencing shoulder pain, schedule an appointment at our office in Austin, Texas today! Dr. Benjamin Szerlip is a fellowship-trained shoulder and sports medicine surgeon who can provide you with the help you are looking for.

The quicker you seek treatment, the faster you may be able to get back to the activities you love. Dr. Szerlip will evaluate your condition and determine the best treatment for you. Contact us today!


Medically reviewed by Benjamin W. Szerlip DO