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Shapiro, Lewis, Appleton & Favaloro
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Rotator Cuff Injury and Surgery, What Can Be Done About It?

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Remember your last sunburn? It probably wasn’t a pleasant experience. Whether the burn was severe enough to cause you immense pain or just bad enough to give you a dull discomfort, a burn is a constant source of pain and distraction that makes your daily activities more difficult. Now imagine if the burn had been on the soles of your feet, and you had to walk around every day, inviting more pain with every step. You wouldn’t be able to function without experiencing chronic throbbing and stinging.

If you’ve had an injury that keeps you in continuous pain, you might as well have third degree burns on your feet, because some injuries heal with time, but others can make you suffer indefinitely and limit your movement. For example, a common injury that causes difficulties for adults is a rotator cuff tear. The rotator cuff is made up of four muscles and that form a "cuff " in the shoulder. These muscles allow you to lift and rotate your upper arm. The cuff also stabilizes the shoulder joint.

The cuff can be torn or damaged from one traumatic event. For example, if you fall and fracture your upper arm or shoulder, the muscles or tendons in the rotator cuff might tear at the same time. This can also occur if you dislocate your shoulder or if your arm somehow gets twisted or pulled too roughly. A blow to your arm when bracing the steering wheel in a car wreck can cause a rotator cuff tear.

Sometimes, a tear develops over a long period of time from general wear and tear on muscles and tendons. It results from overusing shoulder muscles, and the injury is most common in people who play sports or do work involving a lot of repetitive motion, which gradually thins the muscles. Some examples include tennis, baseball, and heavy lifting.

If you experience chronic pain or weakness when trying to raise or lower your arm, you may be developing or already have a tear in your rotator cuff. Recommended treatment may involve rest, limited movement, medication, steroid injection, or physical therapy. If there is no improvement, you may have the option of surgery, but doctors will only resort to this option under extreme circumstances. Your orthopedic physician will probably only recommend surgery if the pain is very severe, the injury is in your dominant arm, and other treatments have failed. Because it is safer to avoid unnecessary surgery, a moderate tear can leave you in chronic pain for a long period of time. In fact, it can take anywhere from 4 to 18 months to heal, depending on the type of treatment you receive and the severity of the injury.

If possible, it’s obviously better to avoid an injury altogether. Certain exercises and precautions can make it less likely that you will suffer an injury. Using low intensity workouts, you can condition and strengthen shoulder muscles. For example, you can use light dumbbells to and gently rotate your arms from the shoulder joint. You can also do wall push ups and shrugs to take care of your muscles. To protect against a traumatic injury while playing sports or working, always remember to warm up or stretch and stay well hydrated. With caution, you can reduce your chances of enduring an injury that can impair your movement and quality of life.