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How to Determine if There is an Issue With Our Rotator Cuff

Your rotator cuff is responsible for the rotation and movement of your entire shoulder joint and all of your arm.  


If you have ever had pain, soreness, stiffness, pinching, cracking or popping in your shoulder or in your upper arm, you most likely have had a rotator cuff problem.  If you have ever felt stiffness, difficulty moving one arm as far as the other, weakness in your shoulder or arm, you have had a rotator cuff problem.


The rotator cuff is made up of a group of muscles that surround your shoulder and shoulder blade. In comparison to other muscles in your body, these muscles are actually very small but also extremely important. It is their small size that makes them vulnerable and prone to injury and problems.

The rotator cuff has two major functions:

  1. To stabilize the shoulder and shoulder blade so that any part of the arm can move
  2. To create and or participate in movement of any part of the arm.


Anytime you do anything with your arm, whether it is to write on a piece of paper, type, turn the steering wheel, reach into a cabinet etc., your rotator cuff is working. If you are writing, you will need your rotator cuff to hold the shoulder blade, upper arm and forearm steady so that you can write. If you have ever watched an elderly person write and noticed their hand is very jittery, this is partly because they are not getting the necessary stability from their shoulder blade and upper arm. This is a perfect example of the rotator cuff needing to provide stability.

When you move your arm and reach into a cabinet for example, your rotator cuff is doing both of its major functions at once. It has to hold the shoulder blade still so that the upper arm can reach for something. The rotator cuff muscles are then supposed to contract in a specific pattern that will rotate/move/raise the upper arm so that you can reach to the shelf in the cabinet. These are two very common actions that we take for granted until the rotator cuff stops doing its job correctly.  


You can start having rotator cuff problems for any number of reasons. Typically a rotator cuff problem will start due to repetitive use of the arm. For example, raking leaves, painting a room, cleaning shelves, or any other list of things that involve repeating the same motion over and over again. Another reason for rotator cuff problems to start is performing overhead activities. Other reasons for rotator cuff problems include overstretching your arm, falling and landing on an outstretched arm or on your shoulder directly.

In all of these examples, the rotator cuff muscles are being overworked, over stressed, injured etc. When any of these things are happening, the muscles themselves are becoming tight or fatigued. When the rotator cuff muscles become tight and fatigued, the space in your shoulder joint will close up, (one of the jobs of the rotator cuff is to stabilize the joint and keep the space open) and this will in turn pinch on the rotator cuff itself or other structures in the shoulder. Additionally, when the rotator cuff gets tight or fatigued or put under too much stress, it will not hold the shoulder blade still the way that it should. This will result in compensatory movements occurring in the shoulder and upper arm, which leads to added pressure and stress on the rotator cuff itself, the bursa in the shoulder or any other number of nearby structures.  


If you are having any stiffness, soreness, loss of motion, pain, pinching, weakness, popping, cracking etc. in your shoulder or upper arm, this is a rotator cuff problem. The expert physical therapists here at LSTC can evaluate the condition, listen to your symptoms and design a plan that is right for your shoulder. No two shoulder problems are the same. The biggest thing that needs to be addressed in a shoulder problem is figuring out what the rotator cuff is not doing at all or not doing enough of and why it is functioning improperly.

By: Mike Bills, MS PT

At Loudoun Sports Therapy Center, our Doctors of Physical Therapy, are trained to identify the exact cause of the problem. After identifying the issue they will create an individualized plan of care to help you get back to living pain free!

If you or anyone you know are experiencing shoulder pain, call Loudoun Sports Therapy Center TODAY at 703-450-4300 and handle your shoulder problem!


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