A rotator cuff injury isn’t easy to shake off. But identifying and treating a rotator cuff injury can be difficult. You want to begin proper treatment and therapy soon as possible. Otherwise, you risk increased pain and long-term shoulder damage.
Our in-depth guide has everything you need to know about rotator cuff injuries, including complete instructions for rotator cuff injuries exercises which help restore pain-free shoulder functions fast.
What is a Rotator Cuff Injury?
Also called a rotator cuff tear, a rotator cuff injury is a common shoulder injury which affects people from all walks of life. Each year over two million people are affected by some type of rotator cuff injury. Rotator cuff tears commonly occur in sports which involve throwing such as baseball and tennis.
But rotator cuff injuries don’t just happen on the field. Any activity which requires fast or repetitive arm motions, especially an overhead arcing motion, can result in a tear. Even relatively low-impact tasks like painting and window cleaning can wear down your rotator cuff over time.
Speaking of time, most rotator cuff injuries develop slowly. Normal wear and tear on your shoulder eventually becomes worse over time. Pain and mobility impairment which seems mild at first can grow to become severe and debilitating.
Although rarer, a rotator cuff tear can develop in an instant, too. This is generally caused by landing on your arm in a fall. Also, you can tear your rotator cuff if you quickly lift something heavy.
The Science Behind a Rotator Cuff Tear
Roll your shoulder around (assuming there’s no current injury). Notice the variety of positions available for your shoulder. This mobility is due to the muscles and tendons of your rotator cuff.
The rotator cuff includes four muscles: the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor and subscapularis muscles. Together with tendons, these muscles surround the shoulder joint. It’s named the “rotator cuff” because its job is to rotate the arm while also creating a supportive cuff around the joint.
There are two types of rotator cuff tears. The less severe type is a partial tear. This is a fraying of the tendon at the top of your shoulder. The more damaging type of tear is a complete tear. The tear goes completely through your tendon. In other cases, the tendon pulls away from the bone entirely.
Who is at Risk of a Rotator Cuff Injury?
Anyone who commonly performs overhead motions on a regular basis runs a risk of rotator cuff tears. Baseball players, tennis players and swimmers are all at the greatest risk, although all athletes should be careful when making fast, sudden overhead motions.
Certain jobs have an increased risk of rotator cuff injuries. These are mainly physical jobs such as house painter, window washer, electrician and similar. Be aware of shoulder pain if your job often requires you to lift your arms over your head.
Age is another factor. Risk of a rotator cuff injury increases as you get older. Most injuries occur in people over the age of 40.
Exercises for Rotator Cuff Relief
Rotator cuff injuries are healed primarily through a series of targeted exercises, including a variety of rotator cuff stretches. Before starting these rotator cuff exercises, you’ll first want to check with your doctor. Serious tears will require longer recovery time. Exercises can begin for milder tears relatively soon after injury.
Exercises for rotary cuff rehab are divided into three categories:
- Stretching Exercises for Increased Mobility
- Exercises to Improve Function
- Exercises to Increase Strength
Let’s take a look at each:
Mobility Building Stretches
These rotator cuff exercises help decrease pain while increasing shoulder mobility. If you have a mild injury, your mobility might not be severely impacted. In that case, you don’t need to perform these exercises as much as you would if your mobility is more impaired.
Perform these rotator stretches from one to three times each day. You probably want to perform them in the morning to help loosen your shoulder up for the day. Then you’ll want to repeat the exercises in the afternoon or evening.
Avoid doing any of these exercises if they’re painful. If they’re only painful in certain ways, try to perform as much of the exercise as you can within the range of pain-free movement.
This is the simplest movement exercise, used primarily for people who have been unable to move their shoulder for an extended period of time. First, lean forward at about a forty-five-degree angle. Use the back of a chair or a table for support. Let the injured arm hang down. Then gently swing the arm back and forth. Let the momentum do as much work as possible. Widen the range of motion as comfortable.
This is a slightly more advanced stretching exercise. You’ll need a broom handle, pole or stick of similar size and weight. Grasp the pole with each hand with the top of your fist facing up. Hold the bar just wider than shoulder-width.
Raise the bar as high as you can. The goal is to eventually hold the bar over your head. Let your healthy arm do the work. Relax your injured shoulder and allow it to be raised up. Don’t raise the bar to a point where you feel shoulder pain. With regular use, you should see increased height and decreased pain levels.
Stretches to Improve Shoulder Functions
Rotator cuff injuries often cause muscles to spasm or shorten. The following stretching exercises help return muscles to their proper length and elasticity. This increases overall shoulder function.
Wall-Facing Shoulder Stretch
Place the forearm of your injured arm flat against a wall or doorway. Hold your arm straight out at a 90-degree angle. Then twist your body away. You should feel a mild to moderate stretch in your shoulder. Hold this position for 20 seconds, but don’t force the hold if you’re in pain. Repeat this stretch three times.
Cross-Chest Shoulder Stretch
This one’s simple but effective. Place your injured arm across your chest. Then use your other arm to pull the crossed arm tighter towards your body. Generally, you’ll want to apply slight pressure to the upper part of your injured arm. Hold the stretch for about 20 seconds. Repeat three times. As always, stop if you feel any pain or discomfort.
Stretches to Increase Strength
These stretches help restore strength and muscle tone. Following a severe injury, shoulder and arm muscles may be out of commission for a while. These exercises help recover from atrophy in a safe, slow way which helps prevent additional injury.
Isometric Shoulder Exercises
Static exercises require no movement. They’re actually some of the first exercises you’ll perform following a rotator cuff tear. You’ll likely be able to do these exercises comfortably just a few days after the injury is diagnosed.
These exercises are pretty simple. Straighten your arm and then make a fist. Hold your arm out at about a forty-five-degree angle from your hip. After about 20 seconds, gently swing your arm back the other way to a forty-five-degree angle behind you.
Isometric exercises are gentle and require no resistance. They’re designed to slowly rebuild your injured shoulder. Plus, they’re usually easy and safe to perform even if your rotator cuff is severely damaged.
Aside from isometric exercises, dynamic exercises are the other way to build up muscle strength. These exercises involve movement and resistance training. Shoulder exercises with bands are considered dynamic exercises. After about seven days, if your shoulder pain has decreased, you can switch from isometric to dynamic.
Basic Resistance Exercises
Resistance bands are often a safe alternative to weights, which can be hard to properly handle when you’re recovering from an injury. Attach the band to a fixed point. With your elbow close to your side, rotate your shoulder with the arm moving outwards.
Diagonal plane exercises are another effective resistance band exercise. Hold one end of the band with your arm raised out to the side at shoulder height. Then pull your arm across your body. Your hand should touch your other hip. Don’t let the resistance band pull your wrist into any unnatural positions.
Remember to follow the most important rule about rotator cuff exercises: Don’t overdo it. Many athletes are used to pushing their bodies. But avoid that same intensity off the field.
Ease into exercises with the gentle stretches and isometric exercises. Consult with your doctor for a thorough understanding of the severity of your injury. Treatment specific to the type of tear you have will not only be more effective, but you’ll also be less likely to re-injure your rotator cuff later.