Symptoms and causes

Symptoms

The pain associated with a rotator cuff injury may:

  • Be described as a dull ache deep in the shoulder
  • Disturb sleep, particularly if you lie on the affected shoulder
  • Make it difficult to comb your hair or reach behind your back
  • Be accompanied by arm weakness

When to see a doctor

Shoulder pain that is short-lived may be evaluated by your family doctor. See your doctor right away if you have a sudden loss of motion after an injury — you could have a substantial rotator cuff tear. If you have pain lasting longer than a few weeks or you've been formally diagnosed with a rotator cuff tear, you need to be seen by a shoulder specialist, because some of the surgical procedures are time sensitive.

Causes

Rotator cuff disease may be the result of either a substantial injury to the shoulder or to progressive degeneration or wear and tear of the tendon tissue. Repetitive overhead activity, heavy lifting over a prolonged period of time, and the development of bone spurs in the bones around the shoulder may irritate or damage the tendon.

Risk factors

The following factors may increase your risk of having a rotator cuff injury:

  • Age. As you get older, your risk of a rotator cuff injury increases. Rotator cuff tears are most common in people older than 40.
  • Certain sports. Athletes who regularly use repetitive arm motions, such as baseball pitchers, archers and tennis players, have a greater risk of having a rotator cuff injury.
  • Construction jobs. Occupations such as carpentry or house painting require repetitive arm motions, often overhead, that can damage the rotator cuff over time.
  • Family history. There may be a genetic component involved with rotator cuff injuries as they appear to occur more commonly in certain families.

Complications

Without treatment, rotator cuff disease may lead to permanent stiffness or weakness and may result in progressive degeneration of the shoulder joint.

Although resting your shoulder is necessary for your recovery, keeping your shoulder immobilized for a prolonged time can cause the connective tissue enclosing the joint to become thickened and tight (frozen shoulder).