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What is the rotator cuff?

Your rotator cuff is a group of four muscles and tendons that hold your arm in its joint and assist in the rotational strength and movement of the shoulder joint. These muscles are the:

  • Supraspinatus
  • Infraspinatus
  • Subscapularis
  • Teres minor

They derive their name as they form a “cuff” of tissue around the humerus bone over the shoulder joint.

Damages to this group of tendons and muscles are called rotator cuff tears. The most common area of damage is to the supraspinatus.

How is the rotator cuff damaged?

Rotator cuff tears are a common injury and can occur in a number of ways. Damage can result from a fall or accident or from chronic over use. Over use can be related to particular sporting activities that involve strong use of overhead arm movements (eg tennis, swimming and basketball) or through work that involves repetitive overhead motions such as painting and carpentry or lifting).

We also become more susceptible to rotator cuff damage from degeneration of our muscles and tendons that may occur with ageing.

What are the symptoms of a rotator cuff tear?

If you have torn your rotator cuff in an injury or accident you may feel acute pain as well as a sense of “snapping” followed by immediate weakness of your arm.

If the tear has occurred through ongoing overuse you may have any or all of the following symptoms:

  • The pain of a full ache deep within the shoulder
  • Disturbed sleep from lying on the injured shoulder
  • Difficulty brushing your hair, reaching behind your back or putting on a coat
  • A feeling of arm weakness

Can a rotator cuff tear injury heal without surgery?

Most rotator cuffs tears will not heal on their own, however we will often provide non-surgical treatment options for less severe rotator cuff tear injuries.

The range of non-surgical treatment options available include:

  • Anti-inflammatory medication
  • Steroid injections
  • Programs of appropriate physiotherapy

When is surgery recommended to repair a rotator cuff tear?

If you have had an acute injury or if you are active and use your arm for overhead work or sports and have ongoing pain or weakness in the shoulder that hasn’t responded or improved with non-surgical treatment – we may recommend you undergo surgery to repair your rotator cuff.

Considerations that are taken into account when recommending rotator cuff repair surgery include:

  • Your symptoms have lasted for a period of over 6 – 12 months
  • The size and type of the tear
  • You have good quality surrounding tendon tissue
  • The tear was the result of a recent acute injury (accident)
  • Your experiencing a significant loss of function and movement

What is involved with rotator cuff surgery?

The type of surgery you need will depend on the type of tear and the extent of the damage. The surgeons at Orthopaedic Clinics Gold Coast perform this surgery arthroscopically (keyhole surgery).

The procedure to surgically repair a complete rotator cuff tear involves trimming and mobilising the torn tissue and then the use of stitching and suture anchors to reattach it to the head of the upper arm bone (the humerus). This is done through a number of small incisions and under a general anaesthetic as well as an overnight hospital stay.

If you have a partial tear, you may only need to have the damaged tissue to be trimmed and smoothed. We call this procedure “debridement.” In most cases, this procedure is done as day surgery done under a general anaesthetic.

What is the usual recovery time after rotator cuff surgery?

The surgical repair of the torn rotator cuff is quite straightforward, however for the tendon to properly heal and reattach to the bone takes time.

Typically, the recovery time after a complete rotator cuff tear surgery will take a few months and will include the use of a sling along with a supervised rehabilitation program with a physiotherapist.

If you would like to find out more about the treatment options available for repairing a torn rotator cuff, please call us at Orthopaedic Clinics Gold Coast on 1300 399 223. Our staff will be able to arrange for a consultation and assessment of your condition.