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Rotator Cuff Disorders

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To diagnose a rotator cuff disorder, doctors ask about any shoulder injuries or past shoulder pain. They also do a physical exam to see how well the shoulder works and to find painful areas or activities. Moving your arm in certain ways can help a doctor learn about the condition of the rotator cuff.

You may have an X-ray to check the bones of the shoulder. If the diagnosis is still unclear, the doctor may order an imaging test, such as an MRI or an ultrasound.

It is important to treat a rotator cuff problem. Without treatment, your shoulder may get weaker and you may not be able to lift up your arm.

For most rotator cuff disorders, doctors recommend these steps first:

  • Rest the shoulder. Use the arm, but do so carefully. Don't keep the shoulder still with a sling or brace. This can lead to stiffness or even a frozen shoulder (adhesive capsulitis).
  • Use ice or heat on the shoulder, whichever feels better.
  • Take anti-inflammatory drugsanti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to relieve pain and reduce swelling and inflammation. Examples include ibuprofen (such as Advil) and naproxen (such as Aleve). Or try acetaminophen (such as Tylenol). It can help with pain but will not reduce swelling or inflammation.
  • Avoid positions and activities that are uncomfortable, such as lifting or reaching overhead. Stop any activity that hurts the shoulder.

The doctor may also suggest physical therapy. Physical therapy can reduce pain and help make your shoulder stronger and more flexible. In physical therapy, you learn exercises to stretch and strengthen your shoulder. After you learn the exercises, you can do them at home.

It is important to give treatment time to work. It may take from a couple of weeks to several months to get good results.

If other treatments don't help, your doctor may give you shots of steroid medicine in the shoulder. The shots probably don't cure rotator cuff disorders. But they can help relieve pain and inflammation so you are able to do exercises to strengthen the shoulder. The shots may also help your doctor find out if your shoulder pain is from your rotator cuff. If a steroid shot near the rotator cuff relieves your pain, even if the pain comes back later, it means the rotator cuff—not some other shoulder problem—is causing the pain.

Most rotator cuff disorders aren't treated with surgery. But doctors may do surgery if a rotator cuff tendon is torn or if several months of other treatments have not helped.

  • Surgery may be a good choice if you are young and your rotator cuff has been in good shape. Surgery may not work as well if your tendons are weak and frayed.
  • Surgery is not a substitute for physical therapy. Even after surgery, you may need months of physical therapy to have a full recovery.
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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: August 07, 2012
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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