Shoulder pain can make daily activities difficult and rob you of much-needed sleep at night. It can range from mild to severe—where even the slightest arm movement causes unbearable pain. Some shoulder injuries also cause weakness and limit the movement of the affected arm.
Shoulder pain can result from wear and tear as you age, a specific condition, or repetitive arm movements—like painting a wall. It can also result from an injury—like falling and landing on your shoulder. A common cause of shoulder pain is rotator cuff injuries. These affect millions of people worldwide every year.
So, if you’re experiencing shoulder pain, what should you know? Below, we dig into what causes shoulder pain and rotator cuff injuries and how to pave your way toward a full recovery.
Common Causes of Shoulder Pain
The shoulder is a complex ball joint due to the number of bones and muscles involved and the range of motion it produces. As a result, there are a variety of reasons for shoulder pain. Here are some common ones.
There is a fluid-filled sac that provides cushioning in your shoulder. When it is irritated from repetitive movement or damaged by an injury, it can get inflamed or infected and cause pain.
Tendons connect muscle to bone. When these bands of tissue get inflamed, usually from overuse, it causes pain when you move your shoulder. In some cases, keeping the muscles in one position—like sleeping on one shoulder—can also cause tendinitis.
Typically associated with aging, osteoarthritis is when the cartilage of the shoulder joint starts breaking down, which causes friction and pain in the joint.
Trauma to the shoulder can cause a fracture or break. When one of the three bones that make up the shoulder joint is fractured, it may cause bruising, pain, and may even change the shape of the shoulder.
Rotator Cuff Injury
There are four muscles attached to the shoulder joint that allow the shoulder to rotate and lift the arm. The tendons attached to these muscles form the rotator cuff—a covering around the top of the humerus (upper arm bone). When any of this soft tissue is damaged, it is categorised as a rotator cuff injury.
Types of Rotator Cuff Injuries
Rotator cuff injuries refer to tears of the tendons or muscles around the shoulder joint. They might be partial or complete depending on the trauma to the shoulder.
A partial tear—typically experienced in the dominant arm—is where the tendon thins due to overuse or degeneration due to aging. The tendon is still attached to the bone but it is weaker and more likely to tear completely in the future.
A partial full-thickness (through all layers of the tendon) tear is when the tendon is torn on the side but still partially attached to the bone. There is a function, but there is pain.
A complete full-thickness tear is when the tendon is completely torn from the bone—this usually results from an injury and may be accompanied by a fracture or dislocation of the joint.
Symptoms of Rotator Cuff Injuries
Damage caused by wear and tear is usually not noticed until the function of the joint is compromised. More severe injuries typically cause immediate pain.
Other symptoms include:
- Limited movement of the arm
- Muscle weakness of the arm
- Pain when sleeping on the side of the injured shoulder
- Increased pain with certain movements of the arm
Treatment for Rotator Cuff Injuries
Rotator cuff injuries can heal—but treatment options vary depending on the severity of the damage. Below, we explore some common treatment options.
Rest gives your soft tissue a chance to knit and repair. In cases of mild tears, it is often sufficient. Limit the movement of the arm as much as possible.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) provide pain relief, which can restore night-time sleep. Corticosteroid injections provide relief for a longer period.
If imaging reveals a complete or severe partial tear, surgery may be the only option for a full recovery.
In surgical or non-surgical situations, physiotherapy supports healing from rotator cuff injuries in a few ways.
Targeted exercises help to strengthen the soft tissue around the shoulder—they restore function and make a future tear less likely. Your physiotherapist also helps you (safely!) stretch tight and stiff muscles following surgery and restore your flexibility and full range of motion.
To find relief from shoulder pain and protect your shoulders from further injury, contact our skilled team at Turramurra Sports & Spinal Physiotherapy. We’re passionate about active and pain-free living! Book your appointment through our online portal today or call (02) 9144 1510 to speak to a member of our team.