Norman Regional Health System

Thursday, January 26, 2023

As we age, parts of our bodies begin to wear down, which can lead to injury. A common age-related injury is a rotator cuff tear. Rotator cuff tears are a prevalent condition in the United States, affecting almost two million people annually and causing them shoulder pain and/or disability.

Joshua Wilson, MD, is an orthopedic surgeon and shoulder specialist with Norman Regional’s Ortho Central clinic. As an expert on orthopedic repair of the shoulder, he shares with us the top three warning signs that you may have a rotator cuff tear.

There is a misconception that rotator cuff tears are felt suddenly and painfully. While they can be painful and you should seek treatment if you do experience sudden and severe shoulder pain, rotator cuff tears often develop slowly and worsen over time. If left untreated, the problem can be made worse. That’s why it is important to know the warning signs so you can seek treatment when necessary and avoid serious complications developing later.

What is the Rotator Cuff?

Before getting into the top three warning signs of a rotator cuff tear, it’s important to also understand what the rotator cuff is and what its functions are.

“The rotator cuff is a group of four tendons that come around the top part of your arm bone and help you move your shoulder out away from you and above the head,” said Dr. Wilson.

 rotator-cuff-Full_thickness_tear-diagram-BLOG.jpg (24 KB)

A healthy rotator cuff (left) and a torn rotator cuff (right).

Now let’s get into the top three warning signs of a rotator cuff tear.

Sign One: Shoulder pain

This one you may have predicted. However, knowing the nuances of the pain and which movements and activities the pain is associated with helps determine what the problem is.

“Pain in the shoulder after an acute injury or vague pain that worsens or fails to improve with time is a primary indication of a rotator cuff injury,” said Dr. Wilson.

“Usually it’s either in the front part of the shoulder or outside of the shoulder. Sometimes the pain can run down the outside part of the upper arm. Many patients report pain during sleep if they are a side sleeper or if they are reaching away from the body or up above the head”

Sign Two: Weakness

Similar to pain, weakness is another key waring sign. If a part of our body becomes damaged, it typically won’t function at full strength. 

“Patients often notice that they just don’t have the strength that they once had in the affected shoulder, especially when lifting things and of course, lifting either out and away from the body or above the head,” said Dr. Wilson.

“One of the more telling signs of a rotator cuff tear is when the weakness is only affecting one side. So when someone lifts something and they notice one side is significantly weaker than the other, or even significantly weaker than it used to be before it started bothering them, that’s a big sign of a rotator cuff tear, especially if there is trauma associated with that particular side.”

Sign Three: Loss of Mobility

This one goes hand-in-hand with both of the signs mentioned above. Much of the limited mobility could be exacerbated by the pain or weakness. However limited mobility can occur without showing pain as well.

“If people notice they are struggling to lift their arm above shoulder height, above the head or reaching behind them, like to put something in their back pocket, that’s definitely a sign that something is wrong,” said Dr. Wilson.

Ultimately, everyone possesses a unique body and one person may react differently than someone else when there’s a tear or injury involved. With that in mind, these are still the most common signs that are reported with rotator cuff tears and may be indicative of a need for treatment.

If you are experiencing one or more of the signs listed above, it may be in your best interest to seek help from a shoulder specialist like Dr. Wilson. He is currently accepting new patients and there is no referral required for an appointment. Don’t delay treatment and let your shoulder issues worsen to the point of a serious injury. It’s important to be proactive and address these issues early.

You can make an appointment with Dr. Wilson by calling 405-360-6764. To learn more about Dr. Wilson, visit here.