Mechanics, pipefitters, carpenters and athletes who throw may notice a trend among their peers – rotator cuff injuries.
Degeneration, common among people who regularly work overhead, is one of the main causes of rotator cuff injuries.
What is the rotator cuff?
“In the simplest terms, your rotator cuff’s job is to keep your arm centered in its socket,” said Sam Voight LAT, a Marshfield Clinic licensed athletic trainer.
Four small muscles and their tendons make the rotator cuff.
A rotator cuff injury may be a strain – partial tear or full-thickness tear – or inflammation like tendinitis or bursitis.
Injury can also be defined as acute, when injury happens suddenly, or chronic and degenerative, when injury happens from repetitive stress over time.
How does injury happen?
If you fall on your arm or an outstretched hand, or throw or lift anything suddenly with poor technique, you may experience an acute rotator cuff injury.
A young athlete might experience a rotator cuff injury if they break their collarbone or dislocate their shoulder.
As mentioned earlier, people over 40 can experience rotator cuff injury over time from repetitive overuse.
“Even sleep positions can impact injury risk. If you like to sleep with your arm overhead, under your pillow and head, you create pinching in your shoulder that can irritate the rotator cuff,” Voight said.
What does rotator cuff injury feel like?
“If the injury is acute, you’re going to feel a sharp, intense pain. You may even feel like you heard or felt a snap, and may experience significant weakness and the inability to lift your arm,” Voight said.
When injury is degenerative, it’s likely for pain to be dull and achy during times of rest, like when you’re trying to fall asleep. You may notice ache or pain when you move your arm or use it to lift and lower objects.
Who is most prone to injury?
As you age, it’s normal for some degeneration, or loss of prime function, to occur. Risk for rotator cuff injury increases in people over 40 and even more so for those who put repetitive stress on their shoulder through work or hobby.
“We put a lot of strain on our rotator cuff if we work overhead often and with poor posture,” Voight said.
Athletes also are prone to rotator cuff injuries, especially athletes who throw, row or lift weights.
How can I prevent rotator cuff injury?
“We can use ‘on the body, in the body and around the body’ as cues for preventing injuries,” Voight said.
- On the body refers to protective equipment in sporting events and daily activity. This can be difficult to relate to shoulder injuries.
- In the body refers to proper form, technique and posture when lifting or working overhead. It includes warming up properly, proper nutrition and hydration, and getting enough rest between sets and in sleep.
- Around the body refers to just that: Be aware of your surroundings. This can help you prevent a fall or related impact.
You also can prevent rotator cuff injury with exercises by strengthening the rotator cuff and all surrounding shoulder muscles.
“Wax on and wax off motions in small and large circles using a towel against a wall, door or counter top can help stretch and strengthen the shoulder area to prevent rotator cuff injuries,” Voight said. “Exercises that strengthen both large and small muscles in the shoulders are most effective, as opposed to exercises that only focus on the major muscles.”
Voight suggests making adjustments to your activity as you age.
When you’re 20 years old and you lift 50 pounds slightly wrong, you’re probably going to be okay. If you do the same thing at 50 years old, you may not be so lucky. Ask for help lifting or reduce the weight,” Voight said.
Finally, practice proper nutrition, healthy sleep patterns and good hydration. This combination is good for preventing injuries in general.
What should I do if I’m worried about my rotator cuff?
“The best thing you can do is call your provider sooner rather than later,” he said. “Unfortunately, a rotator cuff injury is going to feel like most shoulder injuries. Some heal on their own while others need special attention or even surgery. The sooner we get an accurate diagnosis, the easier it is to quickly and effectively treat the problem.”
When you visit your provider, he or she will examine your shoulder area to look for tender spots or deformities, as well as your neck to check the problem isn’t originating from a pinched nerve. Finally, your provider will look at your range of motion and strength. He or she may need to order special tests like an X-ray or MRI.
“Don’t wait until daily activities become difficult. Frequent shoulder or arm pain is enough to contact your provider,” Voight said.