What Is My Rotator Cuff, and Why Does It Hurt?

Illustration of rotator cuff
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Your shoulders do a lot of important things you might take for granted. They help you get something off a high shelf, comb your hair, or play a game of tennis or catch.

It’s a complicated process that your body makes look easy. And your rotator cuff is a big part of that. It protects your shoulder joint and lets you move your arms over your head. It’s especially important in sports like baseball, swimming, or tennis.

What Is It?

Your rotator cuff is made up of muscles and tendons that keep the ball (head) of your upper-arm bone (humerus) in your shoulder socket. It also helps you raise and rotate your arm.

Each one of these muscles is part of the rotator cuff and plays an important role:

  • Supraspinatus. This holds your humerus in place and keeps your upper arm stable. And helps lift your arm.
  • Infraspinatus. This is the main muscle that lets you rotate and extend your shoulder.
  • Teres Minor. This is the smallest rotator cuff muscle. Its main job is to assist with rotation of the arm away from the body.
  • Subscapularis. This holds your upper arm bone to your shoulder blade and helps you rotate your arm, hold it straight out and lower it.

Common Injuries

A rotator cuff tear is often the result of wear and tear from daily use. You’re more likely to have this if you have a job where you need to move your arm a certain way over and over, like a painter or a carpenter, or you play sports like tennis and baseball. It also can happen suddenly if you fall on your arm or try to lift something heavy. It’s usually treated with physical therapy and medication, or you may need surgery.

Tendinitis is inflammation or irritation of a tendon that attaches to a bone. It causes pain in the area just outside the joint. Common types of tendinitis include pitcher’s and swimmer’s shoulder.

Bursitis is when the bursa (a small sac filled with fluid that protects your rotator cuff) gets irritated. That can happen when you repeat the same motion over and over again, like throwing a baseball or lifting something over your head. It also can be caused by an infection.

Continued

Tendinitis and bursitis can get better with rest, a combination of ice and heat, and over-the-counter pain relievers like aspirin, naproxen, and ibuprofen.

Tendinitis and bursitis usually get better over time. Treatments include:

  • Avoiding repetitive motions or overhead sports (tennis, baseball, volleyball, swimming and others)
  • A combination of ice and heat
  • Over-the-counter pain relievers
  • Stretching and exercises to increase mobility

Call your doctor if the pain lasts more than a few weeks or keeps you from doing daily activities.

WebMD Image Collection Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on February 14, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

Comparative Effectiveness Reviews: “Comparative Effectiveness of Nonoperative and Operative Treatments for Rotator Cuff Tears.”

Sports Injury Clinic: “Suprasinitus.” “Infraspinatus,” “Teres Minor.”

University of Washington Department of Radiology: “Subscapularis.”

Mayo Clinic: “Bursitis,” “Rotator Cuff Injuries.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Shoulder Tendinitis.”

© 2017 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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