What are rotator cuff tears?

he shoulder consists of 3 bones, the scapula (shoulder blade), humerus (arm bone) and clavicle (collar bone). The shoulder or glenohumeral joint is the meeting point of the humerus and the scapula; it is commonly referred to as a ball and socket joint. The rotator cuff consists of 4 muscles, the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor and subscapularis. These muscles all originate on the scapula and their tendons form a covering around the head of the humerus. They work collectively to stabilize the glenohumeral joint during movement and at rest. In other words they work together to pull the ball into the socket. A rotator cuff tear can be a partial or full thickness tear of any individual tendon or a combination of these four tendons. However nearly all rotator cuff tears involve the supraspinatus tendon. A tear can be caused by an acute trauma like a fall or more commonly by long term degenerative forces. Improper movement of the scapula in overhead movements and poor posture are also thought to be causative factors. Symptoms of a rotator cuff tear may include pain and weakness when lifting or lowering the arm to the side or during rotation, a popping or crackling sensation during motion and pain at night while in bed.

(This answer provided for NATA by Ian Chaplin Elwood, ATC, PES.)

The rotator cuff is a group of four small muscles in the shoulder. Their primary job is to stabilize the upper arm in it's socket. "Tears" in the rotator cuff can be just small lesions in the muscle that are associated with minor muscle strains or even be complete tears when the muscle is "ripped" apart like a full thickness tear. The supraspinatus muscle on the top of the shoulder is more likely to suffer a full thickness tear that the other three rotator cuff muscles. There are many options for treatment ranging from physical therapy, acupuncture, massage therapy, corrective exercise, surgery and a combination of all the above and more. The good news is is that the rehabilitation community is getting better at rehabilitating these injuries without surgery and surgical interventions are becoming more precise and more effective. 

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.