Do you take your shoulders for granted? Lots of us do — until they start to cause pain. All day long, lifting, stretching, reaching — even supporting heavy backpacks and bags — our shoulders are tasked with a lot. If you play a sport like tennis, basketball, or baseball, your shoulders are under even more stress. It’s no wonder shoulder pain is so common; and as you get older, your risk of developing shoulder pain only gets bigger.
Lots of problems can cause shoulder pain, including overuse and repetitive use of the joint, problems affecting the tendons and ligaments that help the joint move, and degenerative conditions like arthritis. One of the most common causes of shoulder pain is rotator cuff injury. Like arthritis, rotator cuff injuries tend to occur a lot more as we get older, and the faster they're treated, the quicker the area can heal. The key to getting the right type of care — and getting it promptly — is knowing what symptoms to look for.
What is the rotator cuff?
Your shoulder joint is what’s known as a ball-and-socket joint, just like your hip. The ball part is the rounded end of your upper arm bone (called the humerus), and the socket is part of the scapula bone. Your shoulder is the most mobile joint in your entire body, and all that mobility also means it’s relatively unstable. But fortunately, Mother Nature has compensated for that added instability by providing us with the rotator cuff, an interconnected group of tendons and muscles that help support the shoulder joint and keep it in place.
In addition to keeping your shoulder in its proper position, the rotator cuff also helps facilitate specific movements. Specifically, the tendons and muscles help you raise your arm and rotate it, and they're very involved in movements like reaching and throwing. A rotator cuff tear occurs when the tendons that are part of the rotator cuff develop rips that can cause pain and immobility problems.
Rotator cuff injuries: Causes and symptoms
Some rotator cuff tears are caused by direct trauma to the shoulder, like falling on your outstretched arm. When we feel ourselves falling, it's only natural to reach out to try to "break" the fall. But as your hand hits the ground, all the force from the impact travels up your arm to your shoulder joint, which absorbs a lot of that force. With sufficient force, the tendons in the rotator cuff can be torn from their attachments, resulting in either a complete or partial tear.
Other tears occur as a result of overuse and repetitive use of the joint. Over time as the shoulder joint is subjected to more and more stress, the tendons can become irritated and inflamed, and tiny tears can begin to form in the tendon tissue. These tears form what’s sometimes called “fraying,” and it makes the tendon weaker. These damaged tendons are much more prone to becoming injured from routine activities, like lifting heavy objects or even something fun like swinging a golf club or a tennis racket.
Still other tears can be caused by bone spurs, small “bumps” of bony tissue that grow along the edge of the joint. Spurs can wind up rubbing against the tendons and muscles, forming weak areas that are at a much greater risk of tearing.
Rotator cuff tears tend to cause some pretty recognizable symptoms, like:
- Pain when raising your arm above your head
- Pain when lowering your arm from a raised position
- Pain or weakness when lifting or rotating your arm at the shoulder
- Problems when trying to lift an object over your head
- Pain or weakness when reaching for objects over your head
- "Sticking" or "creaking" sensations when you rotate your shoulder or raise or lower your arm
- Pain when leaning on your arm, either when you're sitting up or lying down
Symptoms can vary in severity depending on the extent of the tear.
Stop suffering from shoulder pain
Not all shoulder pain is related to the rotator cuff — but any type of shoulder pain should be evaluated as soon as possible. Without prompt care, you could wind up with a more serious problem, including long-term disability or nerve damage. To find out what's causing your shoulder pain or to learn about the shoulder treatments we offer at Next Step Orthopedics, book an appointment online today.