How to Treat Rotator Cuff Sports Injuries With Physical Therapy
Every athlete and sports fan knows that rotator cuff injury is a serious business. Even the slightest damage on any of the muscles or connective tissues can be extremely painful and limiting.
If you’re experiencing discomfort because of a rotator cuff injury, you’re not alone. It’s a common condition in athletes, especially among ballplayers, but it happens to non-athletes as well. More than 50% of people over the age of 70 have a rotator cuff tear, many of them not exhibiting signs of shoulder pain or loss of function.
Like many health and physical issues, the right treatment can help heal, alleviate the pain, and keep the injury from getting worse. If you’re suffering from shoulder pain due to a suspected rotator cuff tear, sports physical therapy may be the answer.
The Rotator Cuff
The rotator cuff is a group of vital tendons and muscles that forms a “cuff” over the ball-socket joint in your shoulders. Not only do they help stabilize your shoulders, but they are also responsible for the movement and your arm, and connects it to the rest of the body.
With a full range of motion, the rotator cuff allows you to lift and rotate your arms in a full circle, which is actually quite a feat for the human body. This is why it’s critical to keep the ligaments, tendons, and muscles that make up your rotator cuff healthy.
Understanding Rotator Cuff Injuries
Think of the rotator cuff as a sleeve that allows the shoulder ball to spin without getting unhinged. Repetitive, overhead motions can wear down your rotator cuff muscles and are the leading cause of injury. As such, baseball and football players are prone to shoulder-related issues.
While athletes are most known to suffer from rotator cuff injuries, anybody with a job that requires them to perform overhead motions repeatedly – carpenters, electricians, etc. – is susceptible.
Aside from chronic overuse, damage to rotator cuff muscles and connective tissues may also stem from acute injuries and normal wear and tear. In some cases, it may be caused by changes in the movement of the scapula, which impinges the rotator cuff muscles and limits the shoulder range of motion. Regardless of the root of the injury, though, the risk of a rotator cuff injury increases with age.
Impingement and tears are two of the most common rotator cuff injuries. Impingement occurs when any of your rotator cuff muscles swell and cramps, causing a pinching sensation. Rotator cuff tears, on the other hand, and as the name suggests, is a tear within your rotator cuff muscles and tendons. That said, most rotator cuff injuries fall into any of these categories:
- Strains and tears – Often excruciatingly painful, strains and tears may be caused by overuse or acute injuries like vehicular accidents, sports injuries, lifting heavy weights, or a sudden fall. Most rotator cuff tears do not require surgery.
- Tendinitis – Rotator cuff muscles can become inflamed because of chronic overuse. Such is the case among people who regularly have to reach overhead in their line of work.
- Bursitis – An inflammation of the bursa, a fluid-filled sac situated in between the shoulder bones and rotator cuff tendons.
Physical Therapy for Sports Rotator Cuff Injuries
Physical therapy is the recommended first treatment for many cases of rotator cuff injury. By incorporating exercise, massage, heat and ice application, anti-inflammatory medications, and other equipment into the treatment plan, it helps patients regain strength and normal range of motion after an injury, and aids in the recovery process after a rotator cuff surgery.
If you’re considering physical therapy for treating a sports rotator cuff injury, you must know that physical therapy in and by itself cannot heal a damaged rotator cuff tendon or muscle. What it does, instead, is restore shoulder joint mechanics by improving the function of the muscles around the shoulders.
Most people, athletes and body-builders included, only strengthen the larger shoulder muscles when working out or engaging in physical activities. This leaves the smaller, but just as important, shoulder muscles neglected. Physical therapy pays attention to these smaller muscles, as well, to promote shoulder mechanics and compensate for the damaged tendons around the joint. Therapists also focus on strengthening your scapula or shoulder blade for better shoulder stability.
Treatment of rotator cuff injuries through physical therapy typically includes pain relief, body mechanics, postural training, restoring motion, and shoulder reconditioning. Your therapist will work with you, in many cases through the use of individualized treatment plans, to bring your range of motion back and help you return to your regular daily routines as quickly as possible.
Is Physical Therapy for Me?
Common symptoms of a rotator cuff injury include:
- Mild to severe pain on the shoulders.
- Pain radiating from the shoulder to your arm
- Hearing a snapping sound in more severe injuries
- Unable to reach up or to the sides after two days
- Pinching feeling in between your shoulder’s ball and socket when raising your arms
In case of a suspected rotator cuff injury, see your doctor ASAP, especially if the pain persists after three days. Your doctor may send you to a bone specialist or recommend surgical and non-surgical options, including physical therapy.
Physical therapy is the typical initial treatment for most mild-to-average injuries, while surgery may be recommended for more severe cases. Your physical therapist will perform tests to assess your condition and devise the best treatment plan.
Over the years, physical therapy has been used for treating patients who are suffering from rotator cuff injury. And the results show that many of them did just as well as those who went under the knife. If you have just undergone rotator cuff surgery, PT will aid in your faster recovery.
The best thing about PT is that it does not only help you regain your shoulder’s full range of motion. You will also learn how to strengthen your muscles, improve your posture, and carry objects safely, among others. Most importantly, your physical therapist will show you how NOT to injure your rotator cuff again.
Written by Ashley Rodriguez