Physical therapy for rotator cuff injury: What to expect

A shoulder injury can be a serious disruption to your everyday life, especially if it is a rotator cuff injury. Some people may think that surgery is the only way to treat a torn rotator cuff. However, physical therapy is actually the first line of treatment for a rotator cuff injury. There are a variety of techniques that a physical therapist can use to help you heal your rotator cuff. Continue reading to learn what to expect during physical therapy for a rotator cuff injury.

What is a rotator cuff injury?

The rotator cuff is a group of tendons that help stabilize and move the shoulder. Anytime that you move your shoulder, you use your rotator cuff. As such, it can be a big disturbance to your daily activities when you tear your rotator cuff. Unfortunately, the rotator cuff is a commonly injured area.

Most rotator cuff injuries are a type of strain or tear in the rotator cuff tendons. These injuries can range from mild to severe. There are two main types of rotator cuff tears:

  • Partial tear — A partial tear does not completely detach the tendon from the bone and only goes partially through the thickness of the tendon.

  • Full-thickness tear — In a full-thickness tear, a part of the tendon is detached from the bone. If the tendon is completely detached from the bone, it is a full-thickness complete tear.

What causes a rotator cuff injury?

A rotator cuff injury typically happens due to overuse or wear and tear over time. You can also tear or strain your rotator cuff from a fall, car accident or another sudden injury. A rotator cuff tear can also occur with other injuries, such as a broken collarbone, dislocated shoulder or wrist fracture.

Rotator cuff injuries are common among athletes and individuals with physically intensive jobs. Tennis players and baseball pitchers are especially at risk of overuse tears. Painters, carpenters and others who do overhead work also have a greater chance for rotator cuff injury.

Degenerative rotator cuff injuries caused by everyday wear and tear are common in older individuals. In fact, 39% of individuals over the age of 60 have had a full-thickness rotator cuff tear, with an even higher occurrence of partial tears.

Symptoms of a rotator cuff injury

If you have a rotator cuff injury, you may experience:

  • Pain at night, especially when lying on the affected shoulder.
  • Pain when lifting or lowering your arm.
  • Weakness when lifting or rotating your arm.
  • Difficulty reaching behind your back or out to the side.
  • A cracking or snapping sensation when moving your shoulder.

If you injured your rotator cuff from a sudden accident, such as a fall, you will likely experience immediate, intense pain. Tears that develop slowly may also cause pain and arm weakness. However, the pain you experience may be mild or only present when lifting overhead. Over time, this pain may become more noticeable and occur during many routine activities, such as combing your hair.

What to expect during physical therapy for a rotator cuff injury

What exactly to expect during physical therapy for rotator cuff injuries varies depending on the severity of the injury.

First, your physical therapist will conduct an initial evaluation. During this evaluation, your physical therapist will have you describe your symptoms. They will also run a series of tests to determine your current range of motion and shoulder functionality. Typically, this evaluation will take between 45 and 60 minutes. After your evaluation, your physical therapist will diagnose the severity of your rotator cuff injury and create a treatment plan to address your specific needs.

Depending on the severity of the injury, physical therapy for your rotator cuff may include some or all of the following treatment techniques

  • Joint mobilization — Joint mobilization is a type of manual therapy where your physical therapist will use their hands to apply targeted pressure to your shoulder joint in specific directions. It is usually pain-free. Your physical therapist will also communicate with you throughout the process to check in about your comfort levels. Shoulder joint mobilization is a common technique used during physical therapy for a rotator cuff injury. It can be used to improve mobility and range of motion in your shoulder while also decreasing pain.

  • Graston Technique® — The Graston Technique is a form of instrument-assisted soft tissue mobilization. Your physical therapist will use a set of specialized stainless steel Graston instruments to gently massage and scrape the skin. This helps initiate the healing process in soft tissue injuries, such as rotator cuff tears. These tools can also help break up any existing scar tissue in the injured area. After your physical therapist uses the Graston instruments on your shoulder, you will then perform a specific exercise routine created by your physical therapist. This helps encourage healing in the muscle fibers and also increases muscle strength.

  • Therapeutic exercise — Your physical therapist may include therapeutic exercise as part of your physical therapy for your rotator cuff injury. Your therapist may create a custom exercise program for you to do at home between in-clinic sessions. This may include movements such as scapula rises, weighted elbow extensions and standing rows. As such, you may require equipment such as elastic resistance bands or small weights as part of your physical therapy for your rotator cuff tear.

Receive compassionate physical therapy for your rotator cuff injury at Lattimore PT

Looking for physical therapy for your rotator cuff injury? Search no further than Lattimore Physical Therapy. 

During your initial evaluation, we’ll take the time to understand your specific needs, injuries and goals. Our physical therapists will provide prompt, personalized care to support your recovery from your rotator cuff injury. At Lattimore PT, we are dedicated to improving your quality of life and treating your injury with the whole person in mind.

Contact our team today to schedule an initial appointment, or check if there is a Lattimore PT location near you.

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