Rotator Cuff

Shoulder pain is one of the most common complaints seen in the orthopedic surgeon’s office. There are many causes for shoulder pain, but one common cause is disorders of the rotator cuff. The rotator cuff is a group of 4 muscles called the “SITS” muscles, this stands for Supraspinatus, Infraspinatus, Teres Minor and Subscapularis muscles. These 4 muscles work in coordination with each other to provide fine tuning for shoulder stability, motion and strength. Disorders of the rotator cuff could range from bursitis to complete tears. Symptoms can develop due to aging, overuse or acute trauma. The most common cause of rotator cuff damage is due to age-related degenerative changes of the rotator cuff tendons. The incidence of age-related degenerative tearing of the rotator cuff increases every decade of life beginning in the 30s to 40s.

Symptoms of rotator cuff injury can include pain, weakness and loss of motion. Frequently patients complain of pain with lifting the arm above shoulder level, reaching behind her back, reaching to their side and lifting objects away from their body. Pain at night is a frequent symptom and often keeps people awake. After a traumatic event, patients can often have a loss of active motion and strength.

Diagnosing rotator cuff tears begins with a thorough history, physical exam and diagnostic x-rays. While x-rays may not show soft tissue damage, the x-rays will show if there is underlying arthritis, calcific deposits or other bone lesions that could be responsible for the symptoms. The history and physical exam often gives the orthopedic surgeon an idea of the severity of symptoms, duration of symptoms and amount of physical dysfunction from motion loss or weakness. When appropriate, an MRI may be necessary to confirm the presence or absence of a tear.

Treatment of rotator cuff tears ranges from non operative to surgical management depending upon the duration a symptoms, level of dysfunction and pain. Initial treatment with physical therapy or home exercises, possible injection and activity modification is usually the first line treatment for atraumatic rotator cuff symptoms. With these modalities fail to resolve symptoms and a rotator cuff tear is identified, surgical management with an arthroscopic rotator cuff repair and possibly open repair is an option. While many patients with known rotator cuff tears have minimal or no symptoms and normal function, it is generally accepted that approximately half of patients will develop rotator cuff tear enlargement or progression over time. It is important to follow these tears on a regular basis for tear progression even in the absence of symptoms, which could indicate the need for operative repair. It has also been shown that earlier repair of rotator cuff tears has higher healing rates from surgery. The treatment of each patient’s rotator cuff problem should be individualized based upon the patient’s overall activity level, level of symptoms, level of weakness or loss of motion and underlying health of the shoulder joint. Below is a short video of a rotator cuff repair I performed. The video shows an arthroscopic double row rotator cuff repair. I welcome comments and questions and will do my best to answer them for you here!

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