How to Tell if You Have a Rotator Cuff Tear

Shoulder pain can prevent patients from doing many of life's daily activities. Simple things like opening doors, or swinging your arms when walking can even cause pain when you have an injury to the shoulder. It is important to know when to see a doctor for a shoulder injury. 

What Causes a Rotator Cuff Tear?

Acute injuries or aging (arthritis, degeneration) can cause a rotator cuff tear. For example, falling on an extended hand or blunt force to the shoulder can result in a tear. General wear and tear through sports or aging can also lead to this injury. Those whose job or sport requires overhead throwing may also be at risk.

Symptoms of a rotator cuff tear:

- Difficulty sleeping on the shoulder

- dull aching pain without movement

- Raising your arm or reaching behind your back (ex. when brushing your hair)

- Weakness in the arm 

When Should I See a Doctor for a Rotator Cuff Tear?

If you feel immediate pain or weakness in your arm, you should book an appointment with an orthopedic shoulder doctor near you.

Signs of a Rotator Cuff Tear

Recurring Pain

If you have recurring pain when performing certain tasks or doing specific exercises, it may be a sign of a rotator cuff tear. Difficulty brushing hair, reaching behind your back, or doing dishes are tasks that some patients report having pain with.

Difficulty Sleeping

Especially if you are a side sleeper, it can become difficult to get comfortable when sleeping. The dull aching pain can often wake patients up at night as well.

Arm Weakness

Weakness in the arm is caused by the muscle being unable to draw on its fibers for strength and mobility.


Treatment for a Rotator Cuff Tear

Thankfully, about 80% of rotator cuff tears can have a nonsurgical treatment. The biggest tip we can give is to get ahead of the injury. The longer you wait to treat the injury the worse it will become. See an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in the shoulder for the best treatment plan for your rotator cuff tear.


It is important to know the severity of your injury before treatment of the injury. An orthopedic shoulder doctor can help diagnose by performing imaging like XRAYS or MRIs to see minor tears. They will then give you the proper treatment.


If you have a minor tear, resting the injury and adjusting your daily activities can make all the difference. Icing and elevating the arm will also help reduce inflammation. Try to think about the types of movements you are doing that cause pain to the shoulder and avoid doing them for at least 2 weeks. If your pain persists, move on to the next treatment option.


Your doctor may recommend putting your arm in a sling to completely immobilize the joint. This could last anywhere from 4-6 weeks depending on the severity of the tear. This helps prevent you from doing little things throughout the day that are affecting the recovery of your rotator cuff.


If using a sling and resting the shoulder are not helping, your doctor may recommend injections. Steroid injections can help reduce pain and inflammation in the rotator cuff at a much faster rate than resting and icing can. If you have previously used steroids, let your doctor know before injecting. It could lessen the effectiveness of the medication.

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy will likely be recommended at any stage of treatment of a rotator cuff tear. Your arm naturally will become weaker as you rest it, therefore rebuilding its strength and range of motion is critical in recovery.


Who Should You See for a Rotator Cuff Tear?

An orthopedic surgeon who specializes in the upper extremity will be able to properly diagnose and treat your rotator cuff tear. Drs. Samuel Crosby and Dovan at Elite Sports Medicine have extensive training in the area. Schedule an appointment with a shoulder doctor near you here.

Cassie Whittaker Cassie is the Communications Coordinator for Elite Sports Medicine + Orthopedics. She has been writing and reviewing medical content since 2020.

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