Protecting your shoulder health is a must, whether you’re an athlete or you are regularly engaged in physically demanding work. The shoulder’s ball-and-socket joint is consistently at risk when we lift, throw, or perform repetitive overhead motions—leaving us susceptible to rotator cuff injuries.
Want a worry-free season, game, workout, or on-the-job experience? Let’s explore how to know if you have a rotator cuff injury, what to do if you get injured, and how to prevent future injuries with proactive care for your long-term well-being.
What Are Rotator Cuff Injuries?
A rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons surrounding your shoulder joints. Together, they help your shoulders move and function properly. But when the rotator cuff is torn, it can cause significant shoulder pain and limit your arm movement.
It’s possible to tear your rotator cuff in a number of different ways, including:
- Overuse: If you play a sport with repeated overhead motions like throwing a baseball, serving a volleyball, swinging a tennis racket, or swimming, you can injure your rotator cuff by overusing it over time. Workers can injure themselves through overuse as well, including people who work in warehouses or on sites for construction, HVAC, electrical work, or plumbing. An overuse injury may also be referred to as a repetitive strain injury.
- Falling and Collision: If you play a sport where collisions and falling down are commonplace—like lacrosse, football, or ice hockey—you could injure your rotator cuff through a trauma-related incident such as falling and trying to catch yourself.
Remember that age can also play a factor in rotator cuff injuries:
- For young children: If you have a child who plays sports, remember that their shoulders are still developing and may be more vulnerable to rotator cuff injuries.
- For adults: It’s normal for adults’ shoulders to grow more susceptible to rotator cuff injuries the older we become.
How Can You Tell if You Have a Rotator Cuff Injury?
If you experience shoulder pain or any of the other following symptoms during or after any physical activity, including sudden tears from falling and trying to catch yourself, you may have a rotator cuff injury:
- Pain: Deep, persistent shoulder pain is a telltale sign of a rotator cuff injury. The pain can be a mild or severe ache between your shoulders and can interfere with your sleep.
- Decreased Range of Motion: A rotator cuff injury can weaken your shoulder, limiting your ability to raise or rotate your arm. For example, it can be difficult to comb or brush behind your hair or pull a shirt over your head.
- Popping or Clicking: If you hear unusual noises or feel unusual sensations in your shoulder joints, like popping or clicking, they can also be signs of a rotator cuff tear.
- Swelling and Bruising: In some cases, an injured rotator cuff can lead to swelling and bruising around your shoulder area.
What Should You Do If You Have a Rotator Cuff Injury?
It may not always be clear how seriously you should treat a work or sports-related injury like shoulder pain. But if you brush off a serious rotator cuff injury, you could significantly prolong the pain you feel or injure your body even further.
If you think you may have torn a muscle or tendon in your rotator cuff, take the following actions:
- Rest Up: Give your rotator cuff some quality time to recuperate. Avoid any physical activities that could worsen your shoulder pain or discomfort.
- Ice Your Shoulder: Use an ice pack on your injured shoulder area. Apply it for 20 minutes every 3 to 4 hours for the first two to three days after your injury, or until you notice that the swelling reduces. Don’t forget to wrap the ice in a cloth to prevent frostbite.
- Compression and Elevation: Wrap your shoulder with a compression bandage (preferably elastic), then elevate it with a pillow to reduce swelling.
- Over-The-Counter Pain Relief: Over-the-counter pain relievers can help you manage your shoulder pain or inflammation. Always follow the recommended dosages based on age and weight.
Speak with a medical professional immediately if:
- Your rotator cuff pain continues or worsens
- You notice significant swelling in your shoulder
- You notice a loss of shoulder function
A medical professional may perform an X-ray or MRI to determine if you have a rotator cuff tear or injury, after which, they can determine the best method for treatment.
Your doctor may suggest the following treatments for a rotator cuff injury:
How to Prevent Rotator Cuff Injuries
Rotator cuff injuries can be extremely painful and put a halt to your desired activities. Whether you’re an athlete or you’re an employee relying on your shoulders for occupational demands, you may want to consider taking proactive measures to actively prevent shoulder cuff injuries.
Whenever you are performing any overhead physical activity, use the following prevention methods to reduce the risk of rotator cuff injuries:
- Proper Warm-Up and Stretching: Warm up and stretch before you play any sport or exercise to prepare your shoulder muscles for action.
- Shoulder Training: Strengthen your shoulders with upper body exercises, like external rotations with bands or light weights like dumbbells. Enhance your flexibility with yoga poses like Downward-Facing Dog, Dolphin Pose, and Child’s Pose. Use exercises like shoulder circles, arm swings, and doorway stretches to lower the risk of injuries. When you are exercising and stretching, remember to listen to your body. Do not push yourself to the point of injury.
- Technique and Coaching: Enroll in a sports program with qualified coaches who can teach you proper technique, especially if you play overhead sports. If you lift heavy objects for work, remember to lift with your legs and to follow all training guidelines.
- Rest and Recovery: Take regular breaks to prevent overuse injuries. Getting enough rest and time to recover is important at any age but particularly for young children and older adults.
- Proper Equipment: Use the right gear for the sport you play, including protective equipment like shoulder pads or braces whenever necessary.
- Teach Your Children: If you have a young athlete, you should both learn about the risks associated with their sport. Reinforce the importance of being safe while they’re playing and when they’re practicing.
With the right precautions and awareness, you can enjoy your sport or exercise of choice without the fear of rotator cuff injuries.
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