What Is a Rotator Cuff?

Shoulder pain is a common complaint among athletes, but it can also affect people who don’t play sports — even men and women who aren’t particularly active. While painful shoulder symptoms can have various causes, the pain is often related to a complex part of the shoulder joint called the rotator cuff.

Although common, rotator cuff injuries need prompt medical attention to prevent the joint from being seriously damaged. At Next Step Orthopedics, Dominique Nickson, MD, helps patients understand the cause of their rotator cuff problems, providing custom treatment plans to relieve pain and speed up healing. Here’s what you should know about your shoulder joint — and the rotator cuff, in particular.

Rotator cuff: Anatomy

Your shoulder is a ball-and-socket joint that’s made up of three bones:

The top part (or head) of your humerus is rounded and ball-shaped, fitting into the hollowed-out, cup-shaped part of the scapula, called the glenoid cavity (the socket part of the joint). For your shoulder to function the way it’s supposed to, those bones need to be held together. That’s where the rotator cuff comes in.

The rotator cuff is composed of four muscles that form strong tendons that attach to the head of the humerus. These muscles and tendons form a collar or “cuff” around the bones.

In addition to these tendons, there’s another component that helps protect and cushion the rotator cuff. It’s called a bursa, and it’s a fluid-filled sac located between your rotator cuff tendons and the scapula.

Function of the rotator cuff

The rotator cuff has three primary functions:

The primary role of the rotator cuff is to hold your shoulder joint together by compressing the ball of the humerus against the socket of the scapula. By working together, the muscles and tendons provide stability for your shoulder during movement and rest.

The rotator cuff also helps the shoulder move in many ways, allowing you to reach, lift, carry, and stretch. Some muscles work to allow your shoulder to rotate, while others help you move your shoulder away from your body when you reach, lift, or catch a ball, for instance.

Rotator cuff injuries

Two of the most common types of rotator cuff injuries are rotator cuff tears and rotator cuff tendonitis. 

Rotator cuff tears

A rotator cuff tear happens when one of the tendons in the rotator cuff is frayed (partial tear) or completely detaches from the bone (full-thickness tear). While some tears occur following a fall when your arm is outstretched, tears happen most often due to years of wear and tear that causes the tendon to fray. Once the tendon is damaged, a complete tear can be triggered by lifting an object or other strenuous use of your shoulder.

Rotator cuff tendonitis

Rotator cuff tendonitis is a condition where one or more tendons become irritated and inflamed. In rotator cuff tendonitis, the protective bursa also frequently becomes inflamed (a condition called shoulder bursitis). 

In both types of injuries, Dr. Nickson begins treatment with conservative options, like rest and physical therapy, sometimes combined with medications to reduce pain and inflammation. In some severe injuries, like a full-thickness rotator cuff tear, he may recommend surgery to repair the damaged area and restore pain-free movement to the joint. Typically, shoulder surgery can be performed using a minimally-invasive approach called arthroscopy.

Get help for your shoulder pain

It’s easy to take your shoulders for granted — until they start to hurt. That’s a clear sign that something’s wrong, and it should never be ignored. As a leading orthopedics specialist in McKinney, Texas, Dr. Nickson can diagnose what’s causing your shoulder pain, so you can get the treatment you need to feel better. To get relief from your painful shoulder symptoms, call the office or book an appointment online.

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