What is a Rotator Cuff Injury?

The Shoulder

This is about rotator cuff injury but you need to know about the shoulder first. The shoulder is a wonderful joint. A healthy normal range of movement of the shoulder girdle is exceptional. The articulation of the humerus (upper arm) in its socket or fossa, and that articulation with the clavicle (collar bone) and acromion process of the scapular (shoulder blade), enable the many movements. This includes flexion, extension, abduction, adduction, circumduction, protraction and retraction, and internal and external rotation! To make this happen, there are many muscles involved in shoulder movement. They also maintain its stability and integrity.

All of these should work together (ideally in the correct firing pattern), to enable its efficient and smooth movement; more on this later. However, muscles alone cannot ensure the correct function of the shoulder. There are also ligaments, tendons, bursae and articular capsules. These all need to work smoothly to ensure this mobility and maintain stability. If the ball of the upper arm is not kept centred, abnormal stress is placed on surrounding tissues (muscles, tendons, bursae and ligaments). This may cause gradual injury.

Common Causes of Shoulder Injury

There are many different causes of shoulder pain. Repetitive and/or forceful overhead sporting activities, such as swimming or throwing a baseball, may cause rotator cuff injury or biceps tendon injury. Of course, trauma such as falls or motor accidents can also injure the shoulder.

However, quite often, shoulder pain occurs with no apparent reason or specific injury. Occasionally, poor sitting posture may place increased stress on the shoulder and cause pain. Posture at a desk with arms or specifically one dominant arm outstretched reaching for the mouse or keyboard is important. This puts a constant and repeated strain on the rotator cuff muscles, tendons and ligaments. Add an anterior head carriage in to the equation. All of this places unnecessary stress on the postural musculature of the neck, thoracic spine and shoulder, causing altered movement patterns and injury to tissues. This is often done without even realizing you are doing it! And we have talked about this arm pain, here.

Common shoulder problems include:

  • Biceps Tendonitis: The biceps tendon attaches your biceps muscle in your upper arm to the front of the shoulder. Many people consider the long head of the biceps tendon to act as a fifth rotator cuff tendon, offering stability to the front of the shoulder. This tendon can get pinched by the bony anatomy of the shoulder blade or by ligaments that attach to the collarbone and shoulder blade, causing tendonitis. Overloading the biceps by lifting something heavy may cause biceps tendonitis (also called shoulder tendonitis). Strengthening the biceps helps prevent injury.
  • Shoulder Bursitis: A bursa is a fluid-filled sac that helps body structures glide smoothly over one another. There is a bursa that lies between the humerus bone and the shoulder blade. This bursa can be pinched in the shoulder, leading to pain.
  • Rotator Cuff Tendonitis: The rotator cuff is a group of four muscles that help support and move the shoulder. Their primary role is to help hold the ball of the arm bone in the socket while the arm is moved. The rotator cuff tendons attach to the arm bone in an area that lies directly underneath a bony prominence of the shoulder blade. The tendons can get pinched underneath this bone and become inflamed and sore.

Strengthening the muscles that converge to form the rotator cuff is an excellent way to help prevent common shoulder injuries. These include tendonitis, rotator cuff tears, and shoulder impingement syndrome. Age-related changes in rotator cuff tendons leave them less elastic and more susceptible to injury. There is also a gradual loss of muscle mass that occurs with ageing, which can be counteracted with strengthening exercises.

What are your Rotator Cuff Muscles?

The rotator cuff is the main stabiliser of the shoulder joint. It is actually the collective term of 4 separate muscles surrounding the shoulder joint. Each attaches to the tuberosities of the humerus (upper arm), whilst also fusing with the joint capsule (the surface of the socket covered in cartilage). The resting tone of these muscles act to compress the humeral (upper arm) head into the glenoid cavity (the socket).

The supraspinatus

muscles are located at the top of the shoulder and (along with other muscles) abducts the shoulder. They raise the upper arm and move it away from the body.

The subscapularis

muscles are the largest of the rotator cuff muscles. They are triangular in shape and sit on the inside surface of the shoulder blades. They primarily internally (medially) rotate or inwardly twists the humerus (upper arm), as in the movement of if slamming a door shut. It also stabilises the shoulder girdle and assists in the downward motion of the arm from being high above the head.

The infraspinatus

muscles sit on the back of the shoulder blades – they externally rotate the shoulder/bring your arm behind your back (fist outwards). Imagine the movement initiated at the start of throwing a ball, where the arm is drawn outwardly rotating and back.

Teres minor

starts from the posterior- lateral border of the shoulder blades and attaches to the greater tubercle of the humerus (bony prominence of the upper arm). It is also responsible for externally rotating the arm (turning outwards such as throwing a ball). Though each rotator cuff muscle has a primary function of movement at the shoulder, they all work together to stabilise the shoulder joint. Strengthening all the muscles of the rotator cuff is important but premature strengthening can delay healing and cause more pain. For specific advice regarding injury-appropriate rotator cuff strengthening, it is highly recommended that you consult the professional advice of an experienced musculoskeletal physiotherapist or Sports therapist.


If you have developed shoulder pain as a result of trauma like a fall or a car accident, you should seek medical attention immediately. Also, if your shoulder pain has lasted for more than two to three weeks and is accompanied by significant functional loss, a visit to a physiotherapist or sports therapist is recommended. Rotator cuff injury is treated with PRICE – Protection, Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. Initially, a short period of rest is recommended for shoulder pain. This should last two to three days. During this period, you can apply ice to the shoulder to help control inflammation and provide symptomatic relief. Ice can be applied for 15 to 20 minutes every 2 waking hours.

You can also start gentle pendulum exercises during this time as in the illustration to the right. By keeping the shoulder mobile, you can avoid a frozen shoulder (adhesive capsulitis).

Lengthen then….

After a few days of rest, shoulder exercises can be started to help improve the range of motion of the joint and improve the strength of the rotator cuff muscles. As stated earlier, the rotator cuff helps stabilise the ball in the socket when you lift your arm, so strength here is important.

However, there is a general rule of thumb in the treatment and rehabilitation of rotator cuff injuries and that is LENGTHEN BEFORE YOU STRENGTHEN. So, some gentle stretching exercises should be performed to reduce tension in the muscles supporting the shoulder. These may be found in the article entitled Back and Neck Pain – Is your Poor Posture to Blame?

Similarly, before embarking on strengthening exercises, be sure that you have sought the advice as to which of the rotator cuffs are injured, and to what degree.


It is then important to begin with ISOMETRIC STRENGTHENING EXERCISES. These require a contraction of the muscle/s involved WITHOUT any range of movement (a static hold if you will.)

Isometric Extension/Retraction 5 secs -10 times
Internal Rotation 5 secs- 10times

Isometric contractions and stretching should be performed daily. A gradual increase in range of movement should be aimed for, by performing the pendulum exercise.

Active Range Of Motion

As pain reduces, the aim is to start increasing the range of movement. This is done at first, in a passive or assisted manor.

You can use your unaffected arm to assist with the following movement.

 You might find a cane/broomstick/pulley system helpful to move the injured arm. Holding a broom stick with both hands, use the injured limb to raise the broom stick away from body (towards your injured side) until you can no longer raise it. Then use your non injured limb to help move through further range of motion. It is important to try to continue to use your injured limb.

This exercise can be done either lying down or sitting down. Keep your elbows as straight as possible. Maintain the elevation for 10-20 seconds, then slowly lower your arms.

Slowly increase the elevation of your arms as the days progress, using pain as your guide.
Repeat 10-20 times per session

Finally, as range of movement increases with reduced pain, some scapular setting exercises are advisable.

Active Training of the Scapula Muscles

Exercises that help to strengthen the scapulae setting muscles are;

Scapular Retraction: Pinch the back of the shoulder blades together using good posture. This may be progressed to performing the exercise holding the ends of a thera band in each hand while the middle is attached to a firm door handle. Standing with feet in a solid base (split stance) and core tight, draw the elbows backwards, pinching the shoulder blades together. Be sure that your shoulders are depressed/relaxed rather than hunched upwards while performing this.

Shoulder Shrugs: Pull shoulders up and back and hold. 3 sets / 10 reps.

Lower Trapezius Exercise: 3 sets / 10 reps.
The Traps assist with scapular setting. All too often there is an imbalance between the strength of the upper traps compared to the mid and lower. The lower are more involved in drawing the shoulder blades back and down. Common daily activities mean that we draw our shoulders forwards. This makes the mid and lower trapezius are lengthened and weakened. Activating them is therefore an essential component to scapular setting.

Stand straight up. Attach a resistance band via a hook to a position above head height. The top of an average door frame would suffice for most people. Grab the ends of the resistance bands with both hands. Keep elbows straight and pull your arms backwards, trying to reach behind you.

Progressive Push Up Plus:

This should only be attempted after the previous exercises can be performed pain free, and should be progressed gradually. Start with the push up plus against a wall, then to inclined, and finally to the floor beginning in a Box Press Up position

As with all soft tissue injury it is advisable to seek the advice of a physical therapist. They will be able to more clearly identify the structures that are injured. They will be able to guide you about which muscles need lengthening or strengthening.

Are you struggling and do you need to see one of our team? If so have a look at our sports injury online booking system

About Katie Breeze

Katie is a Loughborough University Hons graduate of PE/Sports Science & Social Science, Qualified Personal Trainer & Exercise Class Instructor and a Level 4 Sports Therapist. Using a variety of therapeutic techniques Katie provides Sports & Remedial Therapy to address physical pain and movement limitation. An assessment will consist of movement analysis to establish where your limitations are, followed by the application of an appropriate programme of treatment during the sessions, as well as where necessary, the provision of a post care advice and exercise prescription to perform between treatment sessions. This holistic, bespoke and multidiscipline approach offers a treatment to address the soft tissue dysfunction and facilitate its repair and rehabilitation and your long term functional health and fitness. So, whether you have postural dysfunction from working at a desk, or are recovering from an injury, (whether that be sports related or otherwise) or perhaps you would like to improve your sporting performance, Katie can help. Katie will help you move more freely, correct postural dysfunctions, address muscle imbalances that lead to compensatory patterns of movement and offer you freedom from pain. Techniques used vary between treatments according to what is appropriate for the client and soft tissue dysfunction at the time, but may consist of a range of assessment and techniques including; Movement Analysis, Manual Myofascial Trigger Point Therapy, Dry Needling Therapy, Muscle Energy Techniques, NeuroMuscular Facilitation and Rehab and Corrective Exercise Prescription. QUALIFICATIONS: BSc (Hons) in Sport Science from Loughborough University Level 4 Sports Massage Therapist Level 3 Pre-& Post Natal Exercise Prescription YMCA Qualified Exercise to Music Instructor and Personal Trainer Move It or Lose It trained and qualified FABS Instructor Accredited member of the Federation of Holistic Therapists (MFHT) Associate member of FitPro Find me on: the FHT Complementary Healthcare Therapist Register accredited by Professional Standards Authority. To search the FHT Complementary Healthcare Therapist Register, please visit www.fht.org.uk/register   Public Liability insured

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