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Rotator Cuff Tear

The rotator cuff is made up of four tendons and muscles that help to keep your shoulder stable. Rotator cuff tears are a common injury and more likely to happen as you age.

What is a rotator cuff tear?

A rotator cuff tear is a rip in the group of four muscles and tendons of your rotator cuff. The tear can either build up through overuse of your shoulder joint over time (known as a degenerative tear), or come from an immediate shoulder injury (an acute injury).

There are two kinds of tears: a partial tear where one of the tendons is torn but not the full thickness and a full thickness tear, where a tendon tears completely and pulls away from the bone. The larger the tear, the greater the number of tendons it involves.

What are the symptoms of a rotator cuff tear?

It’s not always possible to feel a rotator cuff tear, but some common symptoms include:

  • Pain / weakness when lifting your arm
  • A dull ache from deep within your shoulder
  • Pain when moving your arm or lying on it
  • Clicking and popping when you move your arm
  • Difficulty moving things

What causes a rotator cuff tear?

The following are risk factors for a degenerative rotator cuff tear:

  • Shoulder joint overuse – through playing certain sports that stress your rotator cuff – such as tennis, rowing and weightlifting
  • Being over 60 – as you age, you amass wear and tear on the shoulder, and a decreased blood supply means small tears are more difficult to repair
  • Working in construction – house painters and carpenters make repetitive overhead motions that can increase their likelihood of the in jury

Additionally, genes may play a role in your likelihood of developing a rotator cuff tear, as they seem to happen more often in certain families.

How is a rotator cuff tear diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask you about your medical history, including details of any prior injuries, alongside whether you do any physical labour at your job and the exercise you do. They will ask you to move your arm in certain ways while they look for any problems in movement or strength.

In some instances, your doctor may take an x-ray or MRI scan to try to get a better idea of whether you have a rotator cuff tear or other potential condition.

How is a rotator cuff tear treated?

In minor cases of rotator cuff tear, your doctor will recommend some (or all) of the following:

  • Physical therapy (this usually means you meet with a physical therapist once to learn some gentle movement exercises, and can then continue with the exercises on your own at home to strengthen your shoulder muscles)
  • Steroid injections into your shoulder
  • Anti-inflammatory drugs and medications
  • Rest so you can heal

In more severe cases, such as total tears, you might need surgery. You will be advised on the surgery that is best for you.

If you’re unsure what treatment you should go for, or the above treatments don’t work for you, our team of expert specialists are here to help.

This content has been checked and approved by

Mr Andrew Sankey  ›

Mr Andrew Sankey is a Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon at King Edward VII’s Hospital with a specialist interest in shoulder and elbow surgery.

Find your specialist in rotator cuff tear at King Edward VII's Hospital

If you suspect you have a rotator cuff tear and you’re seeking an expert opinion, you can find the UK’s leading shoulder specialists here at King Edward VII’s Hospital. Our consultants are hand-picked for you, making it easy to access the best possible care.

Ms Susan Alexander  ›
Special interests include:
Shoulder surgery (+ 2) more
Mr Toby Baring  ›
Special interests include:
Shoulder surgery (+ 5) more
Mr David Butt  ›
Special interests include:
Sports injuries (+ 4) more
Mr Peter Reilly  ›
Special interests include:
Shoulder surgery (+ 1) more
Mr Andrew Sankey  ›
Special interests include:
Frozen shoulder (+ 15) more
Mr Andrew Wallace  ›
Special interests include:
Sports injuries (+ 4) more
Mr James White  ›
Special interests include:
Shoulder surgery (+ 5) more

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