Rotator Cuff Tears: 7 Treatment Options For You

“The older I grow, the more I distrust the familiar doctrine that age brings wisdom.” This quote by H.L. Mencken is proven to be true daily because of the injuries we suffer as we age. In 2008, close to 2 million people went to their doctors because of a rotator cuff problem.

Your rotator cuff is located in your shoulder area. It is made of muscles and tendons. It helps your shoulder to move and stay stable. Problems with the rotator cuff are common. They include tendinitis2 and bursitis.

Rotator cuff tendons can become inflamed from frequent use or aging. Sometimes they are injured from a fall on an outstretched hand. Sports or jobs with repeated overhead motion can also damage the rotator cuff. Aging causes tendons to wear down, which can lead to a tear.

Some tears are not painful, but others can be very painful. Treatment for a torn rotator cuff depends on age, health, how severe the injury is, and how long you’ve had the torn rotator cuff.

Treatment for torn Rotator Cuff includes:

  1. Rest
  2. Heat or cold to the sore area
  3. Medicines that reduce pain and swelling
  4. Electrical stimulation of muscles and nerves
  5. Ultrasound
  6. Cortisone injection
  7. Surgery

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Jay Harold found a treatment guide to help you make an informed decision about Rotator Cuff Tears. The John M. Eisenberg Center for Clinical Decisions and Communications Science at the Baylor College of Medicine made this useful guide about  Rotator Cuff Tears for Adults.

Is This Guide for Me?

This guide will tell you about what research has found regarding the different choices for treating your rotator cuff tear. You can use it to help you and your doctor or other health care provider (nurse practitioner, physician’s assistant, physical therapist) discuss and decide what treatments are best for you.

Where does the information for this guide come from?

The information in this guide comes from a review of the many different studies on treatments for rotator cuff tears. It is not based on a single study but on many studies looked at together by a team of researchers, doctors, and other experts.

Understanding Your Condition


What is a rotator cuff tear?

The tendons of your rotator cuff can tear much like a piece of leather. Sometimes, the tendon is only slightly damaged or irritated. Sometimes, the tendon has a complete tear, which means that the tendon has torn away from the bone.

What causes rotator cuff tears?

The tendons of your rotator cuff can tear for a variety of reasons:Image consrotatorfu2

  • An injury, such as falling or being hit in the shoulder.
  • Overuse over time from repeated actions, such as lifting, painting, cleaning windows, or throwing.
  • Natural wear and tear from aging.

How rotator cuff tears affect your life

Tears in your rotator cuff are not life-threatening, but they can limit movement and cause pain.

Limited movement

Even small shoulder and arm movements, like combing your hair, putting on a coat, or lifting groceries, may be difficult and can hurt.


The pain can range from mild to moderate, to sharp. You may feel pain on top of and in front of your injured shoulder. The pain may spread down the outside of your upper arm. You may feel more pain at night, especially when you are lying on the injured shoulder.


Swelling from inflammation is your body’s natural response to injury. Sometimes this swelling is inside of your body, and you cannot see it. This swelling is the most common cause of your pain.

Cracking and stiffness

Rotator Cuff Tears: 7 Treatment Options For You

Sports like basketball experience many rotator cuff tears.

You may hear clicking, cracking, or popping sounds when you move your shoulder, especially when lifting something heavy.

Understanding Your Treatment Options

Two types of treatments

There are two types of treatments for your rotator cuff tear. Patients get better with both of these kinds of treatments.

  • Non-surgical treatments (see below). This includes physical therapy and other treatments. These treatments are often used first, before considering surgery.
  • Surgical treatments. There are different kinds of surgery used. All surgery comes with specific risks.

Your doctor or health care provider may advise you to have one or both of these types of treatments for your rotator cuff tear. This advice will depend on the type and size of your injury.

The amount of damage to the tendon of your rotator cuff will help your doctors decide what treatments you may need and how long treatment may take.

Treating your rotator cuff tear without surgery

Rotator cuff tears are treated without surgery in these ways:

Which treatment should I choose?

Many of these non-surgical treatments have been shown to help improve pain, weakness, and arm movement. However, there is not much information about which treatment type is better than the other.

Your doctor or health care provider may use several of these treatments at the same time to help you.

Rotator Cuff Tears: 7 Treatment Options For You

Tears in your rotator cuff are not life-threatening, but they can limit movement and cause pain.

There is also not enough research to know how these treatments compare with surgery in improving the use of your rotator cuff.

Your role in treatment

You play an important role in your recovery. Be sure to follow the instructions from your doctor or other health care provider, keep your therapy appointments, and do your home exercises. Talk to your doctor about what to expect during treatment and when you should start feeling better.

Repairing your rotator cuff tear with surgery

How long do I wait before choosing surgery?

There is not enough information from studies to answer this question. Your doctor or health care provider may explore your options with you based on the type and size of your tear and how long you have had the injury. Physical therapy may be enough to help improve the pain and weakness, or surgery may be a better treatment choice. In some cases, surgery is used when physical therapy does not improve symptoms.

How is the rotator cuff repaired during surgery?

In most cases, a surgeon uses stitches to connect the torn edges of the muscle or tendon back together or to connect the tendon back to the ball of your humerus. This is called “rotator cuff repair.”

In addition, your doctor may consider two other surgical treatments:

Three types of surgery

  • Arthroscopic surgery: The surgeon makes very small openings (cuts) into the muscles of your shoulder and uses a device called an “arthroscope” (a small tube attached to a camera and tiny surgical instruments) to repair the tear.
  • Open surgery: The surgeon makes a larger opening into the muscles of your shoulder and repairs the tear with regular surgical instruments.
  • Mini-open surgery: The surgeon uses an arthroscope for the first part of the surgery, and then makes an opening large enough to use other surgical instruments for the repair. The opening does not have to be as big or affect the muscle as much as with open surgery.

Image consrotatorfu5

What type of surgery should I choose?

The research found that:

  • There is no difference between the open, mini-open, and arthroscopic types of surgery in the improvement of shoulder function. They all work about the same. However, arthroscopic surgery usually requires less recovery time.
  • A few studies found that:
    • Some patients who had mini-open surgery returned to work or sports about 1 month sooner than those who had open surgery.
    • Some patients who had open repair surgery had better improvement of their shoulder function than those who had arthroscopic debridement (removing loose tendon, bone, or cartilage fragments that are lodged in the joint) without repair of the tear.
    • The results for the patients who had arthroscopic surgery with or without acromioplasty (creating more space in the joint by removing some bone or tissue) were about the same.

Is surgery safe?

All surgeries come with some risk. You and your doctor can decide what risks may exist for you based on your overall health. Rotator cuff surgery is safe for most people. The most common problems are infection and re-tears.

What type of treatment should I have after my surgery?

Although most doctors agree that you should have rehabilitation therapy after your surgery, there is not enough evidence to tell you which type is best. Talk to your doctor or health care provider about what kind of rehabilitation therapy is best for you.

Making a decision

Ask your doctor

  1. Given my tear, what benefits and harms for using non-surgical or surgical treatments should I consider?
  2. If I need surgery, given my tear and my other medical conditions, which surgery (open, mini-open, or arthroscopic) do you think would be best for me?
  3. What type of treatment will I need after surgery?
  4. How long do you think it will take me after treatment to return to my activities?
  5. Will these treatments help my rotator cuff for many years?
  6. When should I expect my pain and other symptoms to feel better?

A healthy lifestyle is something we all should strive for. Sometimes injuries occur in living an active life. Jay Harold believes Ben Franklin’s quote “Write injuries in dust, benefits in marble,” is a good way to look at your options on Rotator Cuff Tear.

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