As far as shoulder injuries go, rotator cuff tears (RCT) are incredibly common. They also have a knack for being pretty painful. Some RCTs are described as getting stabbed with a knife, and sometimes they have similar symptoms as someone having a heart attack when they occur. That’s pretty scary! But what about RCTs that DON’T cause pain? Do they matter? Should you get surgery?
Most people would agree that our bodies tend to breakdown as we get older, and our shoulders are not spared in that trend. Shoulder injuries are actually one of the most common forms of injuries in older adults, and are more common than knee, hip, or back pain in that population depending on where your information comes from. With RCTs being as common as they are, and shoulder injuries also being common, it would follow that RCTs are the most common reason why shoulder pain is so common, especially in older adults.
The rub here is that RCTs are common, but they often occur without symptoms(1), and up to 66% of RCTs in older adults occur without any symptoms(2). This should bring up a lot of questions, but the big one is: Does having a RCT matter?
The answer to that question largely depends on what your goals are. If you’re wanting to actively compete in sports, or your job requires a lot of heavy overhead lifting, then yes, a RCT will probably matter in your day to day living. If you don’t normally perform overhead activities or do a lot of high-velocity movements (like you would in various sports), then a RCT might not matter at all.
So if you’ve had a RCT or been diagnosed with one, what do you do about it? The answer will again depend on your goals. If you can get through the day without your shoulder limiting you, you might not need to do anything! If you’re having more problems or pain, it’s generally best to try conservative care first. RCTs, even full tears, tend to respond well to progressive exercise, which can be provided by a physical therapist.
The whole point here is to say that just because you’ve been told you’ve torn your rotator cuff, that doesn’t mean that your shoulder is ruined. Judging by those statistics from above, a torn rotator cuff is actually fairly normal as we age. Having all of the muscles of the rotator cuff working certainly helps to keep a strong, healthy shoulder, but they’re not 100% necessary for the vast majority of day to day activities.
Got questions? Feel limited in what you’re able to do? The staff at Limitless Physical Therapy in Eugene, OR can show you how to be limitless.
***The above information, including text, images, and all other materials, is provided for educational purposes only, and not as a replacement or supplement to professional medical advice. Please contact a certified healthcare professional or your primary physician for any personal concerns.
- Siegbert Tempelhof, Stefan Rupp, Romain Seil. Age-related prevalence of rotator cuff tears in asymptomatic shoulders. Journal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery. 1999;(10)8:296-299. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1058-2746(99)90148-9.
- Minagawa H, Yamamoto N, Abe H, et al. Prevalence of symptomatic and asymptomatic rotator cuff tears in the general population: From mass-screening in one village. Journal of Orthopaedics. 2013;10(1):8-12. doi:10.1016/j.jor.2013.01.008.