Our extremely versatile shoulder joints allow us to climb, catch, and throw with ease. To stabilize them, there’s a network of 4 muscles that ring each shoulder. This muscle network is the rotator cuff.
When the rotator cuff is healthy and working well, the arm has both flexibility and strength. But when these muscles become damaged or inflamed, they can cause pain, stiffness, and weakness.
There are 3 main ways in which the rotator cuff can be damaged:
- Sudden injury
The rotator cuff muscles can be injured by a one-time traumatic event, such as using your arm to stop a fall or lifting a heavy object.
- Overuse/wear and tear
Rotator cuff injuries can also be caused by a series of mini-traumas to the muscles. These can be either from normal use over a lifetime (it’s estimated that up to 30% of people older than 70 have rotator cuff tears) or from a job or activity that relies on intense and repetitive use of the shoulder joint, such as painting or baseball pitching.
- Shoulder impingement syndrome
Between multiple bones, ligaments, tendons, and muscles, the shoulder joint can be a crowded place. This is true specifically for the space between the bottom of the scapula’s acromion and the top of the shoulder’s ball-and-socket joint (glenohumeral joint). This space is called the subacromial space.
When there are problems with the other structures in the subacromial space—such as the acromioclavicular (AC) joint degenerating because of osteoarthritis, or a nearby damaged muscle or ligament becoming inflamed—this can irritate or impinge on the rotator cuff, causing it in turn to become inflamed and painful.
Read about AC joint osteoarthritis on Arthritis-health.com.
Symptoms that could indicate you’ve experienced a rotator cuff injury include:
- Shoulder pain, especially at night or when reaching over your head
- Stiffness or weakness in the shoulder
- Loss of range of motion
- Popping in the shoulder
Fortunately, most rotator cuff injuries can be treated with rest and rehabilitation for the shoulder. If needed, there are also injections and surgical treatment options.