The human body is a complex machine that works day and night to perform hundreds of functions. Within our bodies are many interlocking moving parts that provide motion in our joints. These vital parts provide us the ability to move our limbs in all directions allowing us to perform our daily activities.
Occasionally, the interlocking joints of our bodies can become injured. One such injury can happen at the rotator cuff, or shoulder joints. An injury to the shoulder can severely limit a person’s everyday activities. Luckily, a number of treatments and exercises are available to help prevent and rehabilitate injuries of the rotator cuff.
About Shoulder Joint and Rotator Cuff
The shoulder joint is one of the most complex and versatile joints in the human body. It has a wider range of motion than any other joint in the body. This versatility allows us to perform a wide variety of tasks, from reaching a glass high on a shelf to throwing a baseball, and many others.
The shoulder is made up of the upper arm bone (humerus), the shoulder blade (scapula), as well as muscles, and tendons. The top of the arm bone is shaped like a ball that sits in a socket provided by the shoulder blade. This type of joint is known as a ball-and-socket joint. The joint is protected by four muscles and a number of tendons whose job is to hold the bones in place: these are collectively known as the rotator cuff. Unlike other ball-and-socket joints, the shoulder joint is flat and shallow. This allows more motion of the joint, but also makes it prone to injuries.
Injury to Rotator Cuff
Due to its shallow anatomy, the rotator cuff is the one of the most-injured joints in the body. Commonly, this injury can happen during overexertion such as exercising with too much weight and repetitive motion during sports activities. The rotator cuff can also be damaged in an accident or through normal wear and tear. If a person has injured their rotator cuff, they may feel sudden sharp pain while performing strenuous activities or lifting the arm above the head. The person may also notice pain and weakness in the shoulder. These symptoms should be quickly cared for as they can lead to more severe complications, such as frozen shoulder, which heavily restricts movement of the shoulder joint.
Diagnosing a rotator cuff injury begins with a patient’s detailed medical history. This includes whether they play sports, if they have suffered a recent injury, or had past problems. The doctor will perform a physical exam, comparing both shoulders. As part of this comparison, the patient will be asked to perform certain movements to assess the range of motion. The doctor will also look for weakness, instability, and pain during these activities.
Other specific tests can also be performed to diagnose a rotator cuff injury. This includes an X-ray, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanning, ultrasound scanning, an arthrogram (a small amount of dye is injected into the shoulder, followed by an X-ray), and diagnostic arthroscopy (inserting a small camera into the shoulder to examine the rotator cuff). The neck, elbow, and wrist of the patient may also be checked to make sure that they are not contributing to shoulder pain.
Treatment for rotator cuff injury is focused on decreasing inflammation and usually follows the “RICE” method. RICE stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Rest prevents further injury. Icing the area reduces pain and inflammation. Compressing the area with a brace or bandage also helps decrease inflammation. The physician may also prescribe a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) like aspirin or ibuprofen to reduce swelling and pain. Steroid injections such as cortisone can also reduce inflammation. More severe cases of rotator cuff injury might require surgery, but in many cases, treatment consists of gentle and specific exercises.
Exercises are a key component of rotator cuff injury treatment. Rotator cuff exercises focus on strengthening the shoulder muscles and maintaining and increasing range of motion. Exercise should begin lightly with smaller weights, and then ramp up as the shoulder regains strength. A person should always warm up before exercising. For example, stretching the arms and shoulders by doing pendulum exercises. This is done by bending over at the waist, letting the arms hang, and gently moving the hands and arms in a circular motion both back and forth.
Please consult your physician before attempting any specific treatment, as careful monitoring is important to maintain improvement in function and to prevent re-injury.
Regular shoulder stretches and strengthening exercises may help to prevent the recurrence of a rotator cuff injury. Most people focus on the front of the shoulder, chest, and upper arm muscles, but may forget the muscles in the back of the shoulder. It is important to give all the shoulder muscles equal attention. If a person does not have a shoulder injury but is at risk of developing it due to their job or hobby, they can help to prevent injury by:
• Regularly exercising the shoulder muscles
• Take adequate breaks from repetitive movements of the shoulder, especially if there is tightness or beginning pain
• Rest the arm often during sports that require repetitive motion
• Immediately apply cold or hot pads and seek medical evaluation if any pain is experienced with shoulder activities
Shoulder injuries are one of the most common joint injuries. Overuse or injury of the rotator cuff can limit a person’s everyday activities. A shoulder injury requires adequate medical evaluation, as untreated injuries can severely limit movement and also cause pain. Exercise and preventive measures can keep the rotator cuff strong and reduce the risk of injury.