Symptoms of a rotator cuff disorder include pain and weakness in the shoulder. Most often, the pain is on the side and front of the upper arm and shoulder. It may hurt or be impossible to do everyday things, such as comb your hair, tuck in your shirt, or reach for something. You may have pain during the night and trouble sleeping.
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. Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.
- 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.