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Many athletes experience shoulder pain throughout their life, but how do you know when to take it seriously? Recognizing the warning signs of a rotator cuff injury is essential for early intervention and effective treatment. The rotator cuff plays a crucial role in shoulder stability and movement, and when injured can be a serious setback to your athletic goals. It's important to know the warning signs and when to see the doctor to get treatment as quickly as possible.

You might have a rotator cuff injury if you are experiencing one or more of these warning signs:

  • Persistent Shoulder Pain: One of the primary indicators of a rotator cuff injury is ongoing shoulder pain that may radiate down the arm. Ranging from mild discomfort to severe, the pain may make it difficult to perform everyday activities.
  • Weakness and Limited Range of Motion: If you notice a gradual loss of strength or have a difficult time lifting objects overhead, this could be an indicator of an injured rotator cuff. Reduced range of motion over time when rotating the arm is one of the more common signs of an injury.
  • Pain at Night: Rotator cuff injuries often cause increased shoulder pain during the night, especially if you are lying on the affected shoulder. Lying on the injured shoulder can cause pulling and irritation to the already inflamed tendons. Over the counter pain relief and rotating heat and ice can help relieve painful symptoms.
  • Popping or Cracking: Some individuals may experience a clicking or popping sensation known as Crepitus - a grinding or crackling noise when flexing your shoulder.
  • Muscle Atrophy: As a rotator cuff injury progresses, you may notice muscle imbalance or atrophy in the affected shoulder. Due to lack of movement, the muscle can shrink, weaken, and even change in appearance if you wait too long to treat your injury.1

Treat your shoulder injury with simple and straightforward nonsurgical options:

  • Rest and Activity Modification: Reducing or modifying activities that aggravate the shoulder can help alleviate symptoms and promote healing. Applying Ice and elevating the arm of the affected shoulder is recommended for early treatment.
  • Pain Management: Taking over the counter antiinflammatory meds (NSAIDs) can help ease symptoms and lower inflammation. Corticosteroid injections may also be necessary to relieve symptoms.
  • Physical Therapy: A structured physical therapy program can help strengthen the muscles and improve shoulder stability and movement.

In some cases, the tear can be more severe, and arthroscopic surgery is recommended. Surgery is indicated when conservative treatments have failed to relieve pain and restore function of the shoulder.

  • Arthroscopic Repair: This procedure is minimally invasive, using a tiny camera with small incisions to repair the torn tendons, and is performed in an outpatient setting. Depending on your injury, different arthroscopic techniques can be used to repair a torn rotator cuff. In-office diagnostic imaging tools can help determine the severity of your rotator cuff injury and course of action.

Recognizing the warning signs of a rotator cuff injury is vital for early intervention and successful treatment. Get a proper diagnosis as quickly as possible to prevent additional damage to your shoulder, to regain full movement of your shoulder for return to sports or daily activities.

AUTHOR: Dr. Anup Shah is a board-certified, fellowship-trained Sports Medicine Orthopedic surgeon specializing in Knee and Shoulder Surgery in Phoenix, Arizona at Banner Health. Dr. Shah uses a patient-centric and an evidence-based approach to help his patients achieve their desired goals.

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