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Shoulder surgery and treatment

Overview of rotator cuff tear

A rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons in the shoulder. It keeps your shoulder stable and allows you to lift and rotate your arm. When you have a rotator cuff tear, it means one of the tendons has torn. The tear can be partial or complete.

Rotator cuff injuries are one of the most common injuries in the U.S. Millions of people report pain related to their rotator cuff every year.

Dignity Health provides complete care for a torn rotator cuff. Find a Doctor to learn more about our orthopedic services.


The main symptom of a torn rotator cuff is pain. If the tear happens suddenly, the pain will start immediately and be severe. You may also feel a pop or a snapping sensation with immediate weakness.

If the tear develops over time, the pain can be mild and gradually get worse. You may experience discomfort when lifting and lowering your arm or at night when lying on the shoulder. Other signs and symptoms include arm weakness and a creaking or crackling sensation when you move your arm.


The rotator cuff is made up of four separate muscles that attach to the top of the humerus (arm bone) with tendons. Any of these muscles can be strained or torn.

A sudden tear is usually the result of trauma, such as a fall or tugging to lift something heavy. Gradual tears develop from wear and tear of the tendon. With age, tendons may undergo this degeneration, which weakens them and makes them vulnerable to injury. Other age-related factors linked to rotator cuff tears include the development of bone spurs and decreased blood supply to the shoulder tendons.

Repetitive shoulder motions, especially overhead movements, irritate the tendon, resulting in an overuse injury. In most cases, this type of rotator cuff tear occurs in your dominant arm — the one you use most often.

Risk factors

Rotator cuff injuries are typically accidental. Some factors can increase risk, including:


    Previous shoulder injury

    Participation in an activity such as baseball, tennis, climbing, rowing, bowling, and weightlifting

    Working an occupation that requires repetitive motion of the arm, such as carpentry or painting

    Traumatic injuries, such as falls and car crashes

    Family history of arthritis or bone spurs

    Being overweight



Preventing rotator cuff injuries primarily involves limiting your risk factors. For example:

    Using proper form during activity

    Not overstretching or stretching on cold muscles

    Making sure you have adequate conditioning before beginning an activity

    Making sure you have the appropriate training for an activity

    Not overtraining and making sure to build time for rest into athletic conditioning activities

    Not pushing through pain

    Maintaining a healthy weight

    Strengthening the muscles of the arm and shoulder to help protect the joint

Your Dignity Health doctor can also give you tips to avoid shoulder injury or reinjury.

The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.

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