It’s an interesting set of words, isn’t it? A rotator cuff sounds more like a car part than a piece of your anatomy, but (just like a car part) you need it to function. You need it to wash your hair, drive your car and reach the good chocolates you’ve stashed on a top shelf (to hide them from the kids). If you’ve been feeling niggles in your shoulder that have worsened over time you may be suffering from a rotator cuff tear. Read on to find out more…
When we say a rotator cuff tear, we mean a tear in one of the four tendons that comprise the rotator cuff: the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis. Niggling shoulder pain might not be the result of an outright tear, but inflammation. Inflammation usually starts in the supraspinatus (usually the first one to tear too) although any of the tendons can be affected getting inflamed in a sort of miserable chain reaction. Over time that wear and tear leads to, well… tears. Moral of the story – pay attention to those niggling pains, adjust your activities and seek the advice of your osteopath sooner rather than later. Once any of the tendons tear, detaching from the humerus (upper arm bone) it’s both painful and debilitating. The tendons of the cuff work together to rotate the shoulder (in and out) stabilise the joint, and lift your arm above your head (so you can reach for those hidden chocolates) so you’re pretty incapacitated if they stop doing their stuff. It’s a common injury, particularly amongst the elderly, those whose work involves lifting their arms above their head for prolonged periods (like painters and carpenters.) Those who love to do pull-ups or lift weights over their heads but jerk through the movement are at risk too.
Signs and symptoms
Is the pain a dull ache around the outside of your shoulder? Does the pain worsen when you push, pull, or lift your arm? Does lying on the affected shoulder hurt? Or can you simply not push, pull, or lift your arm? Weakness and crepitus (a weird crackling sensation when you move your shoulder) can be symptoms too. Please don’t ignore these symptoms; small tears can get bigger if you push through the pain.
How to recover from rotator cuff tears
The good news (provided you haven’t completely torn it) is that ligaments and tendons do heal and strengthen over time. The bad news is that they respond to exercise more slowly than muscles. This is one reason that returning to exercise after a long break makes ligament damage more likely – your muscles bounce back and you feel strong, but the soft tissues connecting the muscles and bones need a little longer to get there. The first step is to stop or reduce the activity that’s aggravating your shoulder. We know this might be impractical, but further damaging your shoulder will only make your recovery longer. Can you alternate your overhead work with other tasks? At Patterson Allied Health we find that many of our patients find solutions that work for them when they put their thinking caps on. But we’re here to help you brainstorm solutions if you’re stumped.
We will use manual manipulation, massage and possibly even dry-needling or ultrasound therapies to relieve pain and speed healing when you come in for an appointment. Your osteopath will also advise you on exercises to avoid and perform to get your rotator cuff functional and pain-free again as soon as possible.
We’ve listed a few of our favourite exercises below, but please call us on (03) 9776 1600 to make an appointment for a targeted, personalised exercise plan.
Exercises for Your Rotator Cuff Injury
The Shoulder Pendulum
This is one of our favourites. Work gently through the available range of motion. This gentle movement gets blood and other fluids moving to stimulate healing and releases built-up tension.
- Lean forward and place the hand of your “good” arm flat on a coffee table/sofa armrest/whatever’s easily accessible.
- Swing your bad arm back and forth gently. Perform 15 to 20 reps each session.
Shoulder External Rotation With Stick
- Hold a lightweight pole (such as a rod/broom) in front of you with both hands, bending at your elbows so the pole is parallel to the floor.
- Gently move the pole from side to side. (Still in both hands, still parallel to the floor.) Perform 15 to 20 reps each session.
Shoulder Flexion Extension
- Hold your pole in front of you. This time your arms are straight.
- Lift the pole up in front of you (arms straight) to the height that you begin to feel a little pain. (Not until it’s excruciating – just to the edge of pain.)
- Lower your arms slowly (keeping them straight.) Perform 10 to 15 reps each session.
- This one is a good exercise to try lying on your back first!
We hope these gentle range of motion exercises help. Call us today on (03) 8774 9600 for an appointment at Casey Allied Health. We look forward to helping you towards recovery.