What is a Rotator Cuff?

To prevent rotator cuff injuries, one must first know what a rotator cuff is.

rotator cuff

Everyday I work with many patients who have tested the limits of their rotator cuff. It is a term frequently talked about by tennis players, baseball players, Cross Fit athletes and anyone playing an overhead sport. The term comes in many forms—I have heard “rotor cup”, “rotor cuff”, and “rotory cup”, but the correct term is “rotator cuff”. (Step 1—just knowing the name of the body part you injured! Knowledge is power, after all.)

The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that stabilize the shoulder. The four muscles are the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor and subscapularis. The muscles allow the shoulder to be the most mobile joint in our body. We can move our arm forward, backward, sideways and rotate it externally and internally. When we make these movements, the rotator cuff, keeps compression on the shoulder “ball and socket” joint. We would lose power in our overhead movements without the rotator cuff. These muscles work closely with the deltoid muscle, one of the most powerful, workhorse muscles of the shoulder.

READ MORE: Warm-Up Tips to Prevent ACL Injuries

We hear the term rotator cuff frequently because it takes a beating in our throwing and overhead sports as sometimes we overpower the four muscles that make up the cuff. Interestingly, a rotator cuff injury can affect orchestra conductors, choral conductors and drummers as well due to the swinging motion that the shoulder is required to do.

When we examine the shoulder, we can start to come up with whether the rotator cuff is inflamed, has mild wear and tear, or if it is torn. The majority of the time if the rotator cuff has NOT FULLY torn, we can consider treating the injury with physical therapy and cortisone injections. However, once the rotator cuff has what we term a “full-thickness tear”, we discuss surgical options. The tendons here do not heal well on their own due to decreased blood flow to that area and the tear can actually get worse with time. Surgery is typically arthroscopic surgery, using a camera and very small incisions in the shoulder where we pass anchors and suture to bring that torn tendon back down to bone.

So, if you are experiencing night-time pain in your shoulder, have trouble putting the dishes in a high cabinet, cannot do a military press at the gym, or your throwing game is suffering—check with your doctor about a rotator cuff tear.

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