How Are Rotator Cuff Tears Diagnosed and Treated?

Rotator cuff tears pose a significant challenge for athletes, especially those in their golden years. In fact, according to a study published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), roughly 25 percent of those over age 60 have rotator cuff injuries.

Rotator Cuff Tears

Often, these tears in the tendons or muscles that surround the shoulder joint are small and cause few symptoms. In some cases, however, damage is more severe. Unfortunately, this condition often goes undetected until further damage occurs.

The NIH study also indicated that many active people between the ages of 30 and 50 have tears as well, but experience a delay in diagnosis because they fail to recognize the problem.

Symptoms of Rotator Cuff Tears

Pain or discomfort in the shoulder is the most common indicator of this condition.

Most patients with tears describe the pain as a dull ache around the outside of their shoulder and upper arm. Performing overhead arm movements, such as combing your hair or reaching behind your back can make pain worse, as can lying on the affected side.

Some patients also have shoulder stiffness and arm weakness.

As not every tear causes serious symptoms, doctors consider the patient’s medical history for risk factors when diagnosing the condition. If your job or athletic activities include repeated overhead motions — such as when playing tennis, for example — you are more vulnerable to developing tears.

Smokers and those with high cholesterol also have an increased risk of this injury.

Diagnostic Tests for Rotator Cuff Tears

Tendonitis, bursitis, fractures and other types shoulder injuries often result in symptoms similar to those of rotator tears. Consequently, imaging tests are often necessary to pinpoint a diagnosis.

An ultrasound can provide a better look at the muscles and tendons of the shoulder, assessing them while in motion. For a more detailed view of the structures in the shoulder, the doctor may suggest an MRI.

And though X-rays are not helpful in diagnosing tears, they may be prescribed if arthritis, bone spurs or other causes of shoulder pain are suspected.

Treatment Options

In many cases, conservative treatments can be used to successfully manage this condition.

Doctors generally advise that patients rest the shoulder joint and use ice and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to relieve pain. Corticosteroid injections are sometimes given in cases of persistent pain.

Physical therapy is also often suggested, as targeted exercises can help restore strength and flexibility to the shoulder.

For injuries that are severe, surgery may be recommended. Tears that are large or complex may require traditional open repair, which involves a longer incision. In many cases, however, less invasive surgical methods, including arthroscopy and mini-open repair, may be successful in treating the affected area.

Do you have pain or discomfort in your shoulder or arm? The professionals at Steward Health Care: Centers of Orthopedic & Sports Medicine in West Jordan, Utah, are experts in the diagnosis and treatment of orthopedic and sports injuries.

Call our office today to schedule an evaluation to detect any potential problems, including rotator cuff tears.