How To Treat A Rotator Cuff Tear

January 24, 2024

Individuals with a rotator cuff tear around the shoulder will begin to experience weakness in this area as well as a dull pain that worsens when they're lying down. If left untreated, these symptoms can become more painful and more difficult to manage, which is why it's crucial to get the problem treated as quickly as possible. There are an array of different treatments that can relieve the pain of a rotator cuff tear. While the exact types of treatment used do depend on how extensive the injury is, there's a basic treatment plan everyone suffering from a rotator cuff tear should follow. Get to know it now!

Go To Physical Therapy

The first thing patients should do when diagnosed with a rotator cuff tear is to go to physical therapy. Even though this therapy won't cause the tendon to heal, it can provide patients with effective pain relief while they wait to obtain additional treatments. When patients undergo physical therapy, their shoulder strength should see substantial improvements as their joint mechanics are restored to what they were before the injury. The inflammation due to the injury should also dissipate as the patient goes through several sessions of physical therapy. While their rotator cuff will still be torn, physical therapy directly focuses on bolstering the strength of some of the other muscles surrounding the tendon, which is supposed to minimize the effects the tear has on the shoulder's movement. Though most injuries and tears throughout the body must be repaired before patients can experience any substantial pain relief, the same isn't true for a rotator cuff injury.

Take Anti-Inflammatory Medication

When receiving physical therapy for a rotator cuff tear, patients should take anti-inflammatory medications along with the therapy to ensure the inflammation around their torn tendon starts to heal. The reduction of inflammation means both the pain as well as any swelling should start to lessen in severity. Given how common rotator cuff tears are and how minor of an injury this can be, it's possible a combination of physical therapy and anti-inflammatory medication will be all patients need to restore the range of motion in their shoulder. Partial tears of the rotator cuff can heal on their own with the application of some of the more minor treatments on this list.

Surgical Repair

In the event the injury is a severe one, patients may require surgical repair to treat the rotator cuff and repair the torn tendon. Four different types of surgeries can be used to treat a torn rotator cuff. An arthroscopic tendon repair, which is mainly used for partial tears, involves the insertion of a small camera into a couple of tiny incisions. The camera provides the surgeon with enough light to repair the tendon with small tools also placed through the incisions.

A tendon transfer is used only when the damage to the tendon is so severe that a reattachment to the arm is simply not possible. A tendon will be taken from a nearby location and placed in the position where the old tendon was. An open tendon repair uses a large incision to properly repair the torn tendon. Unlike an arthroscopic surgery, an open tendon repair can have a more painful recovery process. Patients can also obtain a shoulder replacement surgery, which is only used when the injury is a massive one. Several different procedures are provided during this surgery, which includes a reverse shoulder arthroplasty.

Apply Cold Or Hot Compresses

One treatment option for a rotator cuff tear that can help patients relieve pain is to apply cold or hot compresses to the shoulder. The application of both hot and cold items can help dull the pain and reduce the inflammation. A hot compress can be anything from a towel dampened with warm water to a heating pad placed on sensitive skin. When someone applies heat to an injury like a rotator cuff tear, more blood will circulate through the injured area, which will reduce the stiffness in their joints. However, patients shouldn't use hot compresses for at least two days following the initial injury. As for cold compresses, these can be made from towels dampened with cold water or ice packs placed in a plastic bag. A cold compress will numb the injured area, which helps reduce the pain and swelling.

Rest The Affected Arm

Shoulder injuries can be difficult to manage given how often this area of the body is used. While general usage of the arm shouldn't inhibit the patient's recovery from the rotator cuff tear, it's important to avoid overextending the affected arm while the injury is healing. One way to effectively rest the injured arm is by wearing a large arm sling for several days, which is particularly important if the pain is severe. A sling will basically pin the patient's arm against their chest so their shoulder is unable to move. Patients also need to avoid raising their arms above their head while the injury is progressing through the healing process. Doing so will place undue amounts of pressure on the joints and tendons in the shoulder, which will likely worsen the inflammation and could cause the tear to become larger. Resting their injured arm means patients shouldn't play sports or do heavy lifting for quite some time. They can, however, go about the everyday activities they performed before the injury.

Cortisone Injection

In most cases, a rotator cuff tear can be treated without surgery. One of the more effective treatments for a rotator cuff tear is a cortisone injection. These injections are comprised of an anti-inflammatory medication injected directly into the affected area. By reducing the inflammation and swelling that occurs with a rotator cuff tear, the pain patients are experiencing in their shoulder should also subside. These injections are exceedingly safe with only minimal side effects like elevated blood sugar or an infection in the surrounding area. Cortisone injections are based on a natural substance in the body known as cortisol. While naturally-produced cortisol is essential to the ongoing function of the body, it's not strong enough to provide quick healing for inflammation. Synthetic injections of cortisol are placed directly into the inflammation that has occurred from the rotator cuff tear, which makes it more potent and effective at getting rid of the inflammation and pain. These injections can be repeated a few times if necessary.

Practice Daily Shoulder Stretching and Strengthening Exercises

When an individual suffers from a rotator cuff tear, it's important they don't exercise too strenuously while the tear is healing itself. However, they might want to practice daily shoulder stretching and strengthening exercises to help improve the motion and strength of their shoulder and the muscles within. These exercises should be very simple and non-strenuous ones that don't place too much pressure on the shoulder. When individuals suffer from a rotator cuff tear, they won't be able to move their shoulder properly without experiencing sharp pain. Since they automatically won't move their shoulder much following the injury, it's very easy for the shoulder to become rigid in the weeks and months following the injury, which limits motion. By performing gentle stretches each day, patients will be able to restore movement to the shoulder. Strengthening exercises like inward rotation and outward rotation exercises should increase the strength of the patient's shoulder muscles and reduce the possibility of another rotator cuff tear in the future.

Take Days Off From Exercising

With a rotator cuff tear, anywhere from one to four of the major tendons that make up the rotator cuff can be torn. A higher number of torn tendons equates to a lengthier and more sensitive recovery period. This type of injury is highly problematic because the shoulder is used constantly for any number of activities, which makes it difficult to avoid using the shoulder. It will likely take around a year or so for the shoulder to get back to normal if the recovery process goes according to plan. During this time, patients will need to maintain a delicate balance of strengthening the shoulder while also avoiding doing anything that could reinjure the affected tendons. As such, it's important for them to take days off from exercising. While patients will likely want to stretch the affected shoulder every day, any types of exercises that are more involved than gentle stretches should be spaced out to avoid placing too much stress and pressure on the shoulder.

Reduce Load On the Shoulders

Along with exercising less regularly, it's highly recommended for individuals with rotator cuff tears to reduce the load on their shoulders to avoid delaying the recovery process. For one, they shouldn't carry many heavy objects in the weeks and months following this injury. Doing so may reverse some of the progress made with the recovery of the rotator cuff. Affected individuals must also carry objects safely to avoid aggravating the injury, which means they should never twist their body while carrying a heavy object and never lift a particularly heavy item above their shoulders. Another way to reduce the load on the shoulders is to make sure to sleep in a way that doesn't hurt the shoulder, including avoiding lying on the affected shoulder. Proper sleeping positions when suffering from a rotator cuff tear include on the back and on the opposite side of the injured shoulder.

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