The most common symptoms of rotator cuff injuries are stiffness, weakness, loss of range of motion, and—most notably—shoulder pain.

  • Shoulder pain. People with rotator cuff injuries complain about pain, especially at night. Pain may also be felt during over-the-head motions or reaching behind the back.
  • Stiffness. The shoulder may feel most stiff when getting out of bed in the morning.
  • Muscle weakness. Lifting the arm overhead or holding the arm away from the body may be difficult. The muscles at the back of the shoulder may appear smaller on the injured side than on the unaffected side.
  • Loss of active range of motion. A person with an injured rotator cuff may not be able to move the arm through a normal range of motion. However, sometimes the arm can still be passively moved, meaning that someone else can lift the affected arm and rotate it through a complete range of motion.
  • Swelling and tenderness. The front of the shoulder is often swollen and tender.
  • Crepitus (shoulder popping). Cracking and popping sensations in the shoulder are also common, and may indicate the shoulder’s ball and socket joint is not tracking properly.

See Guide to Shoulder Anatomy

Many people with rotator cuff tears will have all or some of these symptoms, while others may have no symptoms.

Dr. Michael Erickson is a sports medicine physician who provides care for adults and children. He also serves as the Sports Medicine Fellowship Director at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, WA. Dr. Erickson's interests are concussion management and musculoskeletal diagnostic procedures. He is the Head Team Physician for all of Seattle University's varsity sport programs.