Rotator cuff pain

Physical Therapy for Rotator Cuff Pain

The rotator cuff is a collection of muscles and tendons in the shoulder that hold the head of the upper arm bone in the shoulder socket. Injuries to the rotator cuff are more common with age and occur more frequently in people who are constantly performing overhead motions, such as painters or carpenters. People experiencing rotator cuff pain may feel dull aches and pains, particularly at night, or when lifting or rotating the arm. Physical therapy is often used to treat rotator cuff pain, as exercises can improve flexibility and strengthen the muscles in the shoulder.

What causes injury to the rotator cuff?

Injury and degeneration are the two main causes of rotator cuff tears. Injuries can happen suddenly, such as a fall onto an outstretched hand. Tears in the rotator cuff are very common in sports and can be caused by collisions in hockey or football, or baseball pitchers being overworked. Degeneration is similar to injury, however, it occurs over time with age, due to repeated motion in the shoulder. After years of professional work, many painters and carpenters experience some sort of shoulder pain from constantly lifting their arms and working above their heads. Firefighters and police officers have also suffered many rotator cuff injuries after years of heavy lifting and climbing.

Can Physical Therapy Treat Rotator Cuff Injuries?

If you have a suspected injury to your shoulder, please consult with a Physical Therapist. The Physical Therapist will be able to determine if you need further intervention, such as seeing a MD (Medical Doctor). In most cases, Physical Therapy alone will help reduce pain by improving joint mobility and strength. Alternatively, your medical or orthopedic doctor may also recommend you for physical therapy. Unless the tear is severe, surgery may be avoided and instead, a treatment plan that utilizes physical therapy may be recommended. One of the most important objectives of physical therapy for rotator cuff injury is improving posture. This can be done with a variety of stretches including, the doorway stretch, over-the-head stretch, and up-the-back stretch. The next step in the rehabilitation process is exercise and strengthening the muscles in the shoulder. Types of exercise can vary from person to person depending on the severity of the injury. Isometric exercises are a common first step and work to strengthen the damaged part of the shoulder, followed by isotonic exercises which utilize resistance bands.

Physical Therapist Evaluation of Rotator Cuff Pain

Physical therapy can be a very effective method of treatment for someone suffering from pain in the rotator cuff. A physical therapist will start by asking questions and running tests, such as raising the arm and moving it around, to get a better understanding of the pain. After assessing the rotator cuff, the physical therapist will use strength and flexibility workouts depending on the severity of the pain. There are a variety of stretches and exercises a physical therapist may recommend including the pendulum, crossover art stretch, passive internal and external rotation, sleeper stretch, standing row, and many more. Many of these stretches are designed to strengthen the shoulder and keep the joint stable. Keeping the shoulder strong can relieve pain and prevent injury. The stretches will also improve shoulder flexibility by improving range of motion.

Preventing Rotator Cuff Injury

For those susceptible to rotator cuff tears, measures can be taken in an attempt to prevent such injury. For athletes, it is important to always stretch and exercise before a game in case a collision or long throw occurs that may add tension to the shoulder muscles. For people who are constantly reaching their arms over their heads like contractors or mechanics, exercise can also help. A proper shoulder exercise program will work the muscles that are constantly being moved in awkward positions while on the job. These exercises will strengthen the shoulder muscles and prevent serious injury. If you play a sport or are constantly working over your head, exercise is crucial to preventing injury from overuse of the rotator cuff.

PT Exercises for the Rotator Cuff

Physical therapy treatment for sprains and strains slightly differs. Treatment for a sprain is focused on strengthening and stretching the injured joint to promote joint function, while treatment for a strain will focus on allowing the muscle to heal while simultaneously keeping a base level of strength and flexibility (thereby avoiding too much muscle wasting or atrophy).

After an injury to the rotator cuff, it is important to rest for a while and ice the shoulder. Once the swelling has gone down, exercise can be a very effective way to work the muscles in the shoulder and start to heal. Some common exercises that can help heal rotator cuff injuries include:

Doorway Stretch – Stand in an open doorway and grip the sides while leaning forward. 

Side-Lying External Rotation – Lie on your side that is not injured and use a dumbbell going across your body and up in the air.

High-To-Low Rows – Using a resistance band, get down on a knee and pull the band back and forth using the injured arm.

Reverse Fly – Bend over slightly and use a dumbbell to go out and down repeatedly using the injured arm.

Lawn Mower Pull – Using a resistance band under your foot, pull it up and over your shoulder using your injured arm.

When to see a Physical Therapist for Injury of the Rotator Cuff

If you have a suspected rotator cuff injury, don’t delay. The first step is diagnosis and then treatment. In many cases, you may start with physical therapy and work with your PT in a personalized treatment plan. At Evolution Physical Therapy, we have locations in California, Colorado, Connecticut, and Long Island, with specialist PT providers that offer a range of physical therapy services and help to provide you with the treatment, education, and additional support you need on your road to recovery. Contact us today to set up an appointment at a location near you, or fill out our Request an Appointment form, and get moving again!