Do I have a rotator cuff tear?

The rotator cuff, sometimes called by people a rotary cup or rotator cup, is composed of four muscles, the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, subscapularis, and teres minor and they are responsible for helping stabilize and move your shoulder. Rotator cuff tears can be categorized as partial or full thickness tears indicating the extent to which the tissue was injured.  This extend of the injured tissue may help you decide what the best treatment option is for you.

Rotator Cuff tears can be a result of traumatic or non traumatic injuries. Common causes of traumatic tears include sports related injuries, falling on an outstretched hand, and dislocation of the shoulder. For non traumatic tears, the exact cause can not always be identified. The likelihood of non traumatic tears increases as we age and there are several factors that can place you at risk for experiencing a tear including repetitive overhead activities and bone spurs (overgrowth of bone). If the bone spurs are located in the shoulder, they can start to rub on the rotator cuff tendons and muscles.  Signs and symptoms of a possible rotator cuff tear include:

  • Pain that worsens with activity
  • Unable to move the arm in certain directions liking reaching up over your head or reaching behind your back
  • Difficulty lifting objects
  • Pain when sleeping on the affected shoulder
  • Weakness with lifting or rotating your arm



If you are having shoulder pain or having difficulty moving your arm, it is important to be examined by a physician or physical therapist to begin addressing the issue and to help prevent further damage. Your physician and physical therapist will work with you and help you decide whether surgery, physical therapy, or both are the best option for you.

There is substantial amount of evidence supporting the use of physical therapy to help those you have suffered a partial thickness tear. Physical therapists will work to strengthen the surrounding rotator cuff muscles as well as other muscles surrounding the shoulder to help you resume pain free daily activities.  They will take a hands on approach, to help identifying other limitations that may be going on in the shoulder that require the use of manual therapy. Through manual therapy the physical therapist will work on stretching the shoulder to help restore it to its normal movement.

With full thickness tears, physical therapist will work to strength the surrounding shoulder musculature to take over the job of the rotator cuff muscles and help restore shoulder movement. Full thickness tears tend to do well with physical therapy too, but depending on the level of activity the patient wants to return to they may decide on surgery.

When patients decided to have surgery, physical therapist will play a vital role in helping you regain shoulder function after surgery. Typically after surgery, in the first few weeks we work with the surgeon to protect the repair. Later, we work on restoring the range in your shoulder followed by strengthening exercises to help you return to your daily activities and occupation.

Whatever avenue of care you may choose to take, physical therapy will play an important role in helping you return to what you love to do.  For more information on physical therapy visit


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