The rotator cuff—not the “rotator cup” or “rotor cuff,” as some people mistakenly call it—is an important group of muscles and tendons in the shoulder that allows the arm to lift and rotate. In addition to permitting movement, it stabilizes the shoulder and helps the joint maintain good alignment and posture in many daily activities. Without the rotator cuff, we’d be unable to perform many common motions that we take for granted.
Based on the fact that the rotator cuff serves such an essential role and is used so frequently, it’s also a common site of injury. Injuries to the rotator cuff occur most often in people who repeatedly perform overhead motions in their jobs or sports like painters, carpenters and swimmers, tennis and baseball players, especially pitchers.
When these activities are performed regularly for a long period of time—or through the aging process—the rotator cuff tendons eventually become inflamed from over-stretching or repetitive stress, which can lead to pain or injury. The most common injuries seen are rotator cuff tendinitis (shoulder impingement), shoulder bursitis and rotator cuff tears. Symptoms of rotator cuff injuries are usually described as a dull ache that’s deep in the shoulder, which makes it difficult to reach behind the back or lift the arm and may be accompanied by arm weakness or sleep disturbance.
When rotator cuff injuries occur from overuse or a single incident, conservative (non-surgical) treatment is typically recommended and should include strengthening exercises prescribed by a physical therapist. These exercises are effective not only for treating injuries, but can also help prevent them in the first place. Here are some examples:
- Pendulum exercises: holding a dumbbell, let your arm hang loose and swing it around in a circle; then try swinging it back and forth using your body
- Forward flexion shoulder raise: holding a dumbbell, keep your arm straight and lift it directly in front of you until it’s at eye level
- External rotation: using a resistance band or dumbbell, keep elbow at your side and bent at a 90° angle, and slowly move your hand outwards away from the body
- Internal rotation: same as external rotation, but move hand towards your body
- Scapular squeezes: lie on stomach with arms at sides, draw shoulder blades together and down back as far as possible; ease about halfway off from position and hold it
- “Full can” exercise: stand with arms at side, elbows straight and thumb facing up, raise arms on a diagonal until the hands reach your shoulder
Make sure you are switching arms when performing these exercises on to even it out. Doing these strengthening exercises on a regular basis can lead to significant improvements and reduce your injury risk, especially if you’re involved in overhead sports. For more guidance on how to perform these exercises or for any other pain you may be experiencing, out Kings Mountain and Shelby physical therapists can help. Contact Cleveland Physical Therapy Associates in Kings Mountain and Shelby, NC at 704-471-0001 for more information or to schedule an appointment.