Rotator Cuff Tear: What You Should Know

A rotator cuff tear causes pain and limits shoulder movements. In this article, we'll take a look at what it is and why it happens.
Rotator Cuff Tear: What You Should Know

Last update: 12 January, 2020

A rotator cuff tear is an injury that frequently affects the shoulders of middle-aged people. Thus, it’s currently one of the leading causes of shoulder pain.

The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that anchor to the shoulder bones. They’re responsible for keeping this joint stable and able to perform all movements properly.

Unfortunately, the shoulder is a part of the body that tends to atrophy, and this often leads to discomfort. In fact, an injury in this area is very disabling and painful. Therefore, in this article, we’ll explain everything you need to know about rotator cuff tears.

What is a rotator cuff tear?

This type of injury affects approximately 4 out of every 100,000 people a year.

You must note that its incidence increases with age. In fact, most people who suffer from it are between 50 and 60 years old. Generally, this happens because the injuries of this joint are closely related to the passage of time and deterioration. Unlike other joint problems, blows rarely cause this kind of problem.

Most cases of rotator cuff tears occur in people who are continuously performing shoulder movements in their work or free time. For example, it tends to appear in athletes, carpenters, and painters, among others.

What’s the rotator cuff?

X-ray of a rotator cuff.

As we’ve already mentioned, the rotator cuff is a set of muscles and tendons. All of them surround the joint and keep the humerus (arm bone) in place. They also allow you to properly perform arm movements, such as rotation and elevation of the arm. These muscles are small, but they make the movements precise and coordinated. They are:

  • Supraspinatus
  • Subscapular
  • Infraspinatus
  • Round smaller

Of all of them, the one that’s most prone to injury is the supraspinatus tendon. This is the one responsible for the lateral elevation of the arm so movement becomes painful and difficult when there’s an injury in it.

What causes a rotator cuff tear?

Usually, a rotator cuff tear occurs due to tendon wear due to repeated use. For example, when lifting heavy objects or keeping an arm elevated for a long time.

However, it can also happen due to a sudden injury. It’s less frequent, but sometimes a fall or sudden movement can lead to it. However, the risk factors most related to rotator cuff tear are:

  • Age. As we mentioned before, this lesion mainly affects people between 50 and 60 years of age.
  • Certain jobs, such as carpentry or construction. This is because these are professions in which repetitive movements are constantly performed.
  • A life of playing sports such as tennis or baseball.
  • Having a personal or family history of this condition.

Symptoms of a rotator cuff tear

A man with shoulder pain.

The symptoms that occur depend on the severity of an injury. However, the predominant symptom is pain in the shoulder. Similarly, all movements of this joint become limited.

Some people experience problems mainly at bedtime. In fact, they find it almost impossible to sleep on the injured side. Also, grooming tasks such as brushing, dressing, and even washing oneself become increasingly complicated.

A rotator cuff tear could lead to serious complications if it isn’t treated in a timely fashion. This is because a limb that’s not sufficiently active will end up deteriorating even further. Thus, it slightly complicates treatment. If this joint doesn’t move enough, it could end up causing chronic deterioration of the shoulder.


First, a doctor will do a physical exam to diagnose the rotator cuff tear. During it, they’ll examine the ability to move, the strength and any joint pain.

Similarly, they also commonly use complementary tests such as ultrasound or magnetic resonance imaging. This is because ultrasound allows them to evaluate your tendons and muscles as you move. On top of it all, it’s an affordable and non-invasive test.


As we said at the beginning, the rotator cuff tear is an injury that frequently affects middle-aged people. It’s a very disabling injury, so you should consult your doctor as soon as possible if you have any of the symptoms.

It might interest you...
Eleven Exercises that Can Relieve Shoulder Pain
Step To HealthRead it in Step To Health
Eleven Exercises that Can Relieve Shoulder Pain

Always adjust the intensity of exercises and stretches to your abilities in order to relieve shoulder pain. Some movements could worsen it.