Rotator cuff pain isn’t a mere inconvenience; it can badly reduce your quality of life by limiting your movement and keeping you awake at night with pain.
But how do you reduce rotator cuff pain at night, and how do you restore free movement?
Here’s what you need to know about rotator cuff pain, what causes it and how best to treat yours so that you can get the rest, mobility and quality of life you deserve.
What Causes Rotator Cuff Pain?
While we often associate rotator cuff injuries with athletes, they can happen to any of us. Though athletes such as baseball players may develop repetitive use injuries after years of throwing, damage from sharp blows, repeated stress or other trauma can happen for any of us. This damage may result in pain, inflammation and even tears of the rotator cuff tendons. Some people with physical jobs — especially those that require repeated lifting above the head — can develop chronic use injuries. Age also causes the natural degeneration of rotator cuff joints.
But whatever the cause, it is the tendons surrounding and stabilizing your rotator cuff that are either stressed with tendonitis, partially torn or fully torn, depending on the severity of the injury.
What are Your Treatment Options?
The treatment options for rotator cuff pain depend on the seriousness of your condition. Typically, the minimal healing time for simple strains is around 2-4 weeks, though worse cases may take up to several months.
For most injuries, conservative treatments you can perform at home are all that’s necessary. A conservative approach may include icing the affected area, basic physical therapy exercises and, of course, rest.
Your specialist may have you perform rehabilitation exercises, which may include:
- Weighted Pendulum: Using a 5-10-pound weight, stand leaning forward at about a 25-degree angle, with the weight hanging down from your hand. Swing your arm gently in small circles, doing 10 circles in one direction followed by 10 in the other. You can gradually increase the diameter of the circles as your condition improves, but never “make it hurt” to try speeding things up.
- Towel Stretch: Use a standard dish towel, and hold it behind your back at about a 45-degree angle, with your good hand holding the higher end. Gently pull your injured arm toward your lower back using easy pressure from your good arm. Do this 10-20 times per day.
- Crossbody Stretch: This can be done sitting or standing using your good arm to raise your injured one so that it’s parallel to your shoulders across the front of your collar bones. Using gentle force pressing around your elbow, hold it this way in a light stretch for around 20 seconds, and repeat 10-20 times each day.
- Finger Walk: Stand facing a wall about ¾ of your arm’s length from it. Raise your affected arm and touch the wall with your fingers around waist high. Slowly do an “Itsy Bitsy Spider” walk with your fingers up the wall. Ideally, you can do this until your hand is around eye-level and the lower part of your arm is parallel with the floor, though only go as high as comfortable without forcing it through any pain. Do this 10-20 times per day.
Your doctor may also prescribe easy strengthening exercises you can do with stretch bands or light weights, such as inward and outward rotations.
But if a conservative approach doesn’t give you the relief you need, it’s likely your injury is more severe, and treatments may then range from steroid injections, to physical therapy or surgical repair. Though surgery is a last resort for most rotator cuff injuries, there are a variety of surgery types your doctor may use to reattach the tendon to the bone:
- Arthroscopic Repair of the Tendon: This minimally invasive surgery is performed using a tiny camera that’s inserted through a small incision, along with tools just large enough to repair the damaged area.
- Open Tendon Repair: Your doctor may need a larger incision to work through than arthroscopic surgery will allow, which is when a more “traditional” surgical approach will be used to reattach the tendon.
- Tendon Transfer: When a tendon is too badly damaged to be reattached, a nearby length of tendon may be harvested and used in place of the damaged material.
- Shoulder Replacement: In the event of massive damage to the rotator cuff, the entire shoulder may be replaced in much the same manner as a hip or knee replacement. This involves installing an artificial ball onto the shoulder blade and a socket to the end of the arm bone.
However, most injuries will be fine using ice, anti-inflammatories, rest and performing some simple stretching and strengthening exercises, such as those described above.
What Does Our Team at Intermountain Health Have to Say?
Fortunately, when it comes to rotator cuff pain and how to effectively treat yours, the medical experts at Intermountain Health are here to help.
This includes Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Specialist Dr. Brian Davis, whose job it is to work with patients’ nonsurgical needs to amend joint problems.
According to him, the likelihood of rotator cuff problems increases dramatically as we age, which has to do with the amount of wear and tear we place on them over time. Remember that we humans put greater stress on our rotator cuffs than do our four-legged relatives, due to our ability to lift our hands over our heads in an “unnatural” way.
Eventually, these types of demands result in the joints starting to fail, which causes less flexibility and loss of blood flow to the tendon so that it can’t heal properly. This leads to pain, dysfunction and tendon damage to the point that the sufferer may not be able to reach above their head.
For Dr. Davis, the first course of action is prevention. This means following a proper exercise and training program, which may involve either a trainer or you evaluating your own fitness to make certain you are doing the right exercises to maintain good posture, fitness, strength and flexibility.
Some of the most important tools he instructs his patients to use are simple rubber bands that can be held between a door or that someone else can hold for you. This creates resistance when stretched so that the user can work on their muscle strength.
Something else Dr. Davis has been using to help his patients throughout the course of the pandemic are bands with grip handles to use for building strength and other fitness, such as working on your postural muscles. These can be used at various angles under, along and above a door to create resistance to work your muscles.
Ideally, taking these measures will help you age gracefully, though if you do develop a rotator cuff issue, experts, such as Dr. Davis, can step in and develop an active treatment plan to get you back up and running. These may include exercise protocols, work on your posture and other rehabilitation measures so that you don’t have to go the surgical route.
Why Choose a Provider at Intermountain Health?
For rotator cuff pain relief and all your other healthcare needs, you deserve the best, most convenient help in the region, which is where Intermountain Health comes in. With our strong commitment to community and mission of helping people live their healthiest lives possible, we’re always here to put your needs first.
At Intermountain Health, our values are integrity, trust, excellence, accountability and mutual respect, all of which our top medical professionals bring to you every time you need us.
And that’s our promise to you!
*This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for medical advice or diagnosis from a physician or qualified healthcare professional.