Rotator cuff injury

Expert reviewer, Mr Roger Tillman, Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon
Next review due May 2022

A rotator cuff injury is when you have inflammation (soreness and swelling) or a tear in the muscles and tendons (connecting tissue) in your shoulder. You can develop it after an injury to your shoulder or after years of wear and tear on your shoulder joint. It’s a common cause of shoulder pain and is more likely to affect older people or active people. If you have a rotator cuff injury, it can be difficult and painful to do everyday tasks, such as brushing your hair and getting dressed.

A woman's shoulder

About rotator cuff injury

Your rotator cuff is the group of muscles and tendons that surround your shoulder joint. They work together to keep your shoulder stable and working well. The rotator cuff works with the ligaments that connect the bones in your shoulder together, to keep your shoulder joint in its socket. A capsule that covers your shoulder joint also helps to keep it in place.

If you injure these muscles and tendons or they become sore and swollen over time, it’s called a rotator cuff injury.

Types of rotator cuff injury

There are a number of conditions that can affect your rotator cuff. The main ones are listed below.

  • Rotator cuff tear. This is when one or more of the muscles and tendons that make up your rotator cuff tear. You can have a partial tear or a full-thickness tear. Tears can develop after an injury or if you dislocate your shoulder. Small tears can also develop in the tendon after general wear and tear over a long period of time.
  • Tendinopathy. This is when you have pain in and around the tendons of your rotator cuff because they are no longer able to repair themselves properly. It’s usually because of wear and tear of your rotator cuff over time.

You can also have a combination of wear and tear with an injury, which is why shoulder injuries or pain can become more common over the age of 40.

Symptoms of rotator cuff injuries

The main symptom of a rotator cuff injury is pain at the top and side of your shoulder. The pain can be a dull general ache, or it can feel severe and sudden if you tear your rotator cuff in an accident.

Shoulder pain often gets worse if you’re doing something where your arm is above your head. You may also find that the pain is worse at night, especially if you sleep on the injured shoulder. In this case, it can affect your sleep and make you feel tired.

Other symptoms of a rotator cuff injury include:

  • a feeling of weakness when you lift or move your arm from the shoulder
  • inability to move your shoulder fully
  • a clicking or grating sound when you move your shoulder

These symptoms may be caused by problems other than rotator cuff injury. If you have any of these symptoms, see your physiotherapist or GP for advice.

Diagnosis of rotator cuff injuries

Your physiotherapist or GP will ask about your symptoms and your pain. They’ll examine you and ask you to do certain movements to check how well your shoulder is working. They may also ask about any activities you do that could be causing your condition.

You might need to have some other tests, which may include:

All of these scans show your doctor images of the inside of your shoulder.

Depending on the cause of your pain, your GP may refer you to see a specialist. This could be a physiotherapist, a surgeon or a doctor who specialises in joint conditions.

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Treatment of rotator cuff injuries

The type of treatment you need depends on the type of injury you have, and how severe it is. Your doctor will discuss your options with you and advise you which is best for you.


There are some things that you can do to help yourself. Rest your shoulder as much as you can – try not to lift heavy weights or do activities that involve lifting your arm over your head. There are some gentle stretches you can do that may help. See the section on Physiotherapy (below) for more information.

You might find it helps to use an ice pack to help relieve pain. Wrap the ice pack in a towel or dishcloth before using it. Never put an ice pack directly on to your skin as it may cause damage or give you a burn.

If you need pain relief, you can take over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. If these don’t work well enough, your GP may suggest taking paracetamol with codeine. You can buy this from a pharmacy. Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice.


Your GP may refer you to a physiotherapist. They’ll show you some rotator cuff stretches and exercises that you can do at home to help improve the strength and movement of your shoulder. The type of exercise and how long you will need to do them will depend on the type of injury you have.

Steroid injection

If the treatments above don’t work or your pain is severe or your movement limited, you may need to have a steroid injection. This is an injection into the area around your shoulder joint. It can help to reduce swelling, pain and stiffness. This will ease your symptoms and make physiotherapy exercises more comfortable. However, steroid injections can have side-effects. For example, you may find your pain initially gets worse or you get facial flushes. Talk to your doctor for more information.


If other treatments haven’t worked for you or if you have a large tear, your doctor may suggest you have an operation.

An operation can be done either as open surgery, mini-open repair or keyhole surgery. Open surgery is usually for large tears and involves making a large cut in your skin to do the operation. In mini-open repair, your surgeon will do the operation through a small cut. They’ll use arthroscopy as part of the operation too. Keyhole surgery (arthroscopy), involves using a thin, flexible camera and special instruments to look inside and treat your shoulder joint.

Your surgeon will give you advice on which type of surgery is best for you. Treatment for a rotator cuff injury aims to ease your pain and to give you as much movement in your shoulder as possible. But recovering from a rotator cuff injury can be a slow process. You may need to take several weeks off work, particularly if you have an operation to repair a tear.

Causes of rotator cuff injuries

There are some things that may make a rotator cuff injury more likely. If you’re over 60, you’re more likely to develop this type of injury. This is because you’ve had more wear and tear on your shoulder joint than younger people.

You’re also more likely to develop a rotator cuff injury if you do a lot of repeated overhead movements. This includes activities such as throwing, painting, lifting weights and swimming front crawl.

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Related information

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    • Personal communication, Mr Roger Tillman Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon, 1 April 2019
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  • Reviewed by by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Freelance Health Editor, May 2019
    Expert reviewer, Mr Roger Tillman, Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon
    Next review due May 2022