Rotator Cuff Tendonitis

By Jay Herrera, DPT
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people, healthcare and problem concept - unhappy man suffering from neck or shoulder pain at home

What Is It?

Rotator cuff tendonitis is a condition of the shoulder joint where there is inflammation of one or more tendons of the rotator cuff complex. The rotator cuff is made up of four main structures:

Supraspinatus. This holds your humerus in place and keeps your upper arm stable. It helps lift your arm.

Infraspinatus. This is the main muscle that lets you rotate and extend your shoulder.

Teres Minor. This is the smallest rotator cuff muscle. Its main job is to assist with rotation of the arm away from the body.

Subscapularis. This holds your upper arm bone to your shoulder blade and helps you rotate your arm, hold it straight out and lower it.

The structure that is often mostly affected is the supraspinatus. There are many factors that can cause irritation of the rotator cuff resulting in tendonitis. For example, a trauma like falling onto your shoulder or repetitive use like painting a wall or a ceiling. Rotator cuff tendonitis can occur more often after the age of 30. Genetics can be a factor as well.

If the condition is acute (only been felt for a short time, ~ less than 4 weeks) then controlling the inflammation is crucial to allow for you to maintain joint range of motion as well as muscle strength.

This can be accomplished by using ice pack application for 10 minutes per application as well as gentle exercises to maintain normal range of motion. The muscles of the shoulder blade must also be given attention to ensure that you can properly move your arm from resting beside your body to raising your arm up by your head.

Performing cross friction massage yourself by rubbing the painful region can also help to minimize scar tissue formation and help to mobilize the joint swelling in the region. Your provider can show you how to do this. 

If the condition is more chronic, a more serious approach may be required. A thorough examination may be required by healthcare professional such as a Doctor of Physical Therapy or Chiropractor to determine what specifically may be causing your condition and what should be done to correct the issue.  Usually with chronic symptoms, poor neuromuscular control is apparent. True muscle weakness may also be an issue in a more chronic condition.   

Therapeutic Procedures That Can Be Effective Include:

  • Cold Laser Therapy (also called Low Level Laser Therapy)
  • Joint Manipulation
  • Soft Tissue Mobilization
  • Instrument Assisted Soft Tissue Mobilization
  • Ultrasound
  • Electrical Stimulation
  • Carefully selected exercises

To summarize, staying on top of a rotator cuff tendonitis condition is key to ensure you can obtain pain free normal motion. Minimizing specific activities that overload the muscles and lead to abnormal motion can help to progress toward achieving a normal, healthy shoulder.