Rotator Cuff Tears

If you have chronic pain or weakness in your shoulder, it may signal a rotator cuff tear. While rotator cuff tears can be treated without surgery, a surgical procedure may be necessary to repair the tear and return your ability to lift and reach overhead. Duke shoulder surgeons evaluate the severity of your rotator cuff tear and recommend the most appropriate treatment, including non-surgical approaches and physical therapy. Our goal is to lessen your shoulder pain and return your shoulder strength and function, so you can get back to the activities and sports you enjoy.

What Causes Rotator Cuff Injuries

The rotator cuff is a group of four muscles that control your shoulder’s stability and ability to rotate. Rotator cuff tears can result from trauma to the shoulder, or from years of repetitive reaching and lifting. They commonly occur in people ages 50 and older, while partial tears are common among younger athletes who participate in overhead and throwing sports such as swimming, baseball, and tennis. 

When to Seek Treatment for Rotator Cuff Tear

Shoulder pain that disturbs your sleep or makes it hard to perform daily activities -- such as getting dressed or simply lifting your arm overhead -- should be evaluated by an orthopaedic surgeon who specializes in the shoulder joint. Your doctor will use a variety of imaging tests, including X-ray, MRI, and ultrasound imaging, to evaluate the severity of your tear and determine the best course of treatment.

  • If you need immediate care, you can make an appointment to see a Duke shoulder surgeon right away, often within 24 hours.
  • You can also get prompt care at Duke Orthopaedic Urgent Care, which is available seven days a week at two convenient locations.

When to Consider Rotator Cuff Surgery

Surgery to repair the rotator cuff tear may be recommended if:

  • Your shoulder pain continues despite non-surgical treatments
  • You have a complete tear (not a partial tear)
  • You are an athlete who wants to return to a high level of performance

Most rotator cuff surgeries are performed using an arthroscope, a tiny camera that is inserted through small incisions into the shoulder joint. Shoulder arthroscopy may be performed to diagnose or repair the rotator cuff tear. This minimally invasive approach results in less pain than other methods. Traditional open surgery, which requires large incisions, may be recommended when the tear is large or complex.

Reviewed: 02/15/2018

Nonsurgical Treatments

Rotator cuff tear treatment depends on several factors, including the severity of the tear, your age, and your activity level. Whenever possible, your doctor will recommend non-surgical options first.

Surgical Options

Whenever possible, shoulder arthroscopy is performed using small incisions to reduce your pain. Traditional, open shoulder surgery may be recommended for extensive tears or when shoulder replacement is needed.

Reviewed: 02/15/2018
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