How to tell if your rotator cuff needs surgery

Men's Health
Women's Health
Healthy Aging
Anatomy of Shoulder

Seventy-year-old Lois Hayman-El of Montgomery County had surgery on her right shoulder a dozen years ago. When the left one started hurting last year, she was surprised by the sharp, stabbing pain she experienced compared to the nagging ache from previous years. It turns out, she had rotator cuff injuries on both sides.

The rotator cuff is one of the most common orthopaedic injuries with about three million new cases every year.

"The rotator cuff is a group of four muscles, one in the front and then three coming back," says Christopher Kester, DO, an orthopaedic surgeon at Main Line Health, who explains that magnetic resonance imaging or MRI, a powerful tool that can show bone and joint damage inside the body, is one way to tell if your rotator cuff needs surgery. "The MRI will show a rotator cuff tendon torn away from the bone."

Watch on 6abc Lois Haymen-El's patient experience with rotator cuff surgery:

A rotator cuff tear can cause excruciating pain when performing certain activities such as reaching for things high on shelves or even picking up heavy grocery bags. This type of injury can also cause:

  • Sleep disruption and discomfort
  • A feeling of weakness and instability
  • Decreased range of motion

People who need rotator cuff surgery tend to be in the 40- to 75-year age range. Rotator cuff injuries are often a result of age, daily wear on the tendons causing tears that may lead to the need for rotator cuff surgery. Repetitive motion is also a contributor, whether from sports, such as tennis, golf or basketball, or from job movements such as those required of warehouse or construction workers.

But surgery is usually considered only after more conservative treatments have been tried, such as physical therapy, cortisone injections and other nonsurgical therapies that may provide relief.

If rotator cuff surgery is needed, the surgery is performed arthroscopically, a minimally invasive treatment involving small surgical incisions and the assistance of a tiny camera that allows the surgeon to view the joint area on a video monitor.

Rotator cuff surgery recovery involves about six months of physical therapy to regain strength and mobility.

If you have lingering shoulder pain and are concerned about a recent or previous rotator cuff injury, it may be time to see a shoulder pain specialist.

Main Line Health serves patients at hospitals and health centers throughout the western suburbs of Philadelphia. To schedule an appointment with a specialist at Main Line Health, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (1.866.225.5654) .

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