Common Signs of a Rotator Cuff Injury

Common Signs of a Rotator Cuff Injury

Shoulder pain can have many causes. For athletes, overuse, as well as sudden damage sustained during practice or play are common causes of shoulder pain. For others, conditions such as arthritis are involved.

The shoulder is one of the largest and most complex joints in the body and the rotator cuff gets a lot of daily use as you flex and move about your day. Composed of muscles and tendons that connect your upper arm bone to your shoulder blade, the rotator cuff is vulnerable to injury. Rotator cuff injuries are broad and cover things like damage to the muscles or tendons that make up the rotator cuff.  

Rely on sports medicine and shoulder specialist Matthew Pifer, MD, to help you recover and restore function when you have shoulder pain. Dr. Pifer will identify the cause of your pain and recommend the best treatment approach to help you heal so you can return to play or get back to doing the things you enjoy.

In this blog, our experts discuss some common rotator cuff injuries and signs that it’s time to see a specialist.   

Rotator cuff anatomy 

The shoulder is a ball-and-socket joint made up of the upper arm bone (humerus), shoulder blade (scapula), and the collarbone (clavicle) The ball-shaped surface of the upper arm, bone fits into the cup-like socket of the shoulder blade.

The rotator cuff is what keeps your shoulder in the socket. A group of muscles covers the head of the upper arm bone to keep the shoulder stable and allow for movement so that you can lift and rotate your arm.

The tendons attached to the rotator cuff allow your shoulder to glide freely thanks to a lubricating sac (bursa). However, when your rotator cuff is irritated or injured, the bursa can become inflamed, irritated and painful as well. 

Rotator cuff injury signs and symptoms 

An injury to your rotator cuff can happen suddenly, such as during an accident, or it can happen over time. Here are some common rotator cuff problems.

Wear and tear

As you age, repetitive movement can cause wear and tear on the shoulder. The lubricating components of the shoulder joint may wear down, causing pain and movement limitation.


The tendons of the rotator cuff can become irritated from overuse. Athletes who play sports that require repetitive shoulder movements, such as tennis and volleyball are at a higher risk of shoulder tendinitis. Symptoms include shoulder pain and stiffness.   


Earlier we mentioned that the fluid-filled sac that sits between the shoulder joint and rotator cuff tendons can become injured or irritated. This is called bursitis. When this lubricating sac becomes swollen or inflamed it’s common to experience pain when moving your shoulder. 

It’s most often described as a dull ache on the outside or top of the shoulder. Lifting your arm, pushing an object, or moving your arm in a circle is likely to cause pain and discomfort.

Rotator cuff tear

Sometimes a partial or full tear can occur in the rotator cuff tendon. This can happen abruptly due to injury or over time as a result of repetitive movement. Additionally, untreated shoulder tendinitis can lead to a rotator cuff tear. A torn rotator cuff requires expert care.

The supraspinatus tendon is the most commonly torn rotator cuff tendon. Adults over 40 are most at risk of rotator cuff tears. Athletes who play certain sports like baseball and tennis are vulnerable to rotator cuff tears also.

Rotator cuff tears cause pain even at rest and may especially hurt at night if you lie on the affected shoulder. You’re likely to experience pain when lifting or lowering your arm and may experience weakness in the shoulder.

Shoulder impingement

 Shoulder impingement causes persistent pain and occurs when the rotator cuff rubs on the shoulder bones. Pain may radiate from the front of the shoulder to the side of the arm and may occur at rest or with movement. 

Diagnosing a rotator cuff injury 

If you have shoulder pain Dr. Pifer will perform a comprehensive evaluation, which includes a physical exam, and order any relevant imaging tests. Dr. Pifer is a highly skilled shoulder surgeon specializing in minimally invasive techniques. Dr. Pifer also uses the latest advances in regenerative medicine to treat shoulder pain and sports injuries. 

If you have shoulder pain, schedule a visit for a thorough evaluation. Contact our Santa Barbara office to schedule a consultation with Dr. Pifer. We offer in-person and telemedicine appointments, so you can receive guidance from the comfort of your home. Our team is here to meet your orthopedic needs.

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