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Torn Rotator Cuff = Painful Shoulder

About a year ago, I was taking the same yoga class I had been taking for years. I should have been paying attention to what was happening in the present moment, but my mind was focused on a fight I had with a friend earlier that day. When I pressed my hands into the mat and lifted my lower body up off the ground to jump back to Chaturunga (4-Limbed Staff), I felt a pinching pain in the top of my left shoulder. A fellow yogi (who also happened to be a massage therapist) said it might be a torn rotator cuff. Just what I needed.

Your rotator cuff is made up of 4 muscles and their tendons. These combine to form a "cuff" over the head of the humerus bone, and help to stabilize, support and allow your arm to move up and down, as well as rotate. When the muscles get strained or pulled, they can tear, and Bingo! - you've got yourself a torn rotator cuff.

Swimmers, pitchers, and tennis players are prone to rotator cuff tears. You can also tear your rotator cuff lifting something too heavy, by repetitive activities, or if you've injured your shoulder previously in an accident or dislocation.

So how do you know if you have a torn rotator cuff? To find out

For me, when I raised my arm above my head, I would feel a piercing pain in the front of my shoulder that radiated down my arm. Some people feel pain when they're not moving it at all, or when they lie on it at night. A torn rotator cuff may also cause stiffness or loss of movement in your shoulder.

If you suspect you have a torn rotator cuff, you should definitely have it examined by a doctor. They'll measure your range of motion (or lack of - ouch!!!) in different directions, and test the strength in your arm. You may need X-rays, and possibly an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) so your doctor can better visualize the rotator cuff tendon. In some circumstances, an Arthrogram may be helpful, in which local anesthetic and dye is injected into the joint.

If you do have a rotator cuff tear, an orthopedic surgeon will recommend the most effective treatment. In many instances, non-surgical treatments can provide pain relief and can improve the function of your shoulder.

Treatments include:

  • Overall rest, and limited use of that arm (that's what I did)
  • Use of a sling
  • Anti-inflammatory medication
  • Steroid injection
  • Strengthening exercises, and physical therapy (did this too)

Unfortunately, if these don't work and you're in a severe amount of pain, surgery may be necessary.

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