The rotator cuff is the area of the shoulder made up of muscles and tendons that stabilize the shoulder joint. This is also the muscle group that allows you to lift and rotate your arms, so clearly it is vital for both mobility and strength. A tear or injury to this area can result in pain and restricted movement of the arms and back.
Rotator cuff injuries are rather common, typically with athletes but also in aging populations. Usually, rotator cuff injuries are treated with a combination of physical therapy and anti-inflammatory medications, depending on their severity. Rotator cuff tears can range from a small irritation to a complete tear in which the tendon pulls away from the bone.
The objective of physical therapy in rotator cuff treatment is to improve the function of the muscles around the shoulder. This is done through strengthening exercises. Many people (especially athletes or weight lifters) may have decent strength in the larger muscles in their back and shoulders, but physical therapy will target the smaller muscles too. By building the strength of these small but important muscles, the entire shoulder is able to heal.
Some people may feel that the only answer to a rotator cuff tear is surgery, but in reality, only more severe tears usually require surgery. A recent study from Finland found that in nontraumatic rotator cuff tears, physical therapy alone was just as effective as arthroscopic surgery and open surgical repair. After following up with all of the study participants, researchers found that physical therapy should be considered the primary treatment for this condition; if unsuccessful, then surgery can be considered. This is great news, since no one wants to undergo an operation that may have been preventable.
The above study further confirms the findings of other research teams who have investigated this issue in the past. A 2013 study that appeared in the Journal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery also focused on the effectiveness of physical therapy in preventing surgery for torn rotator cuffs. The patients in the study underwent 6 to 12 weeks of nonoperative physical therapy that focused on strengthening and mobilizing the rotator cuff and shoulder joints. After 6 weeks of PT, 9% of participants chose to have surgery. After 12 weeks, an additional 12% opted for surgery. At the 2 year follow up mark, only 26% of patients had decided to have surgery. This means that almost 75% of patients with rotator cuff tears avoided surgery by engaging in physical therapy.
These findings show us that those suffering from torn rotator cuffs do have several options when it comes to alleviating their symptoms and healing injuries. Many people may wonder about the best course of action for their injury. In reality, there is truly no single treatment path that is right for everyone. The most reliable way to know what treatment plan is most appropriate for you is to speak with a specialist.
If you have questions or are interesting in pursuing physical therapy to treat a rotator cuff injury, contact Biomotion PT at 210-659-4333.