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How to Treat Rotator Cuff Pain and Injuries

My first shoulder injury came from playing football while in the Army. The pain radiated through the whole arm.

What Is the Rotator Cuff?

If you feel pain in and around your shoulder when you try to lift your arm or rotate it in a certain direction, it is possible that you strained or injured your rotator cuff. The pain can feel like a sore or bruised muscle, or it can be more excruciating and feel like you are being stabbed with a knife (assuming you know what it feels like to be stabbed with a knife).

The rotator cuff is a group of four muscles that support the shoulder. They are the supraspinatus muscle, the infraspinatus muscle, the teres minor muscle, and the subscapularis muscle. Along with those muscles are the tendons that actually attach the muscles to the bone. Any of these muscles and or tendons can be the reason you are feeling pain in your shoulder.

If you know the exact location of the pain, you can pinpoint the affected muscle or tendon. Correctly diagnosing the cause of the pain will guide your treatment plan.

Rotator Cuff Injuries

There are several possible reasons you are feeling the pain. Some are more serious than others, so it’s not really a good idea to try and diagnose yourself; if you are wrong, it could lead to more serious complications. In general, the pain is a result of one of the following:

  • Subacromial bursitis, which is the inflammation of the bursa, a small sac of fluid, that acts as a cushion for the tendons and the nearby bone.
  • Adhesive capsulitis, also known as "frozen shoulder," which is when the humerus bone adheres to the shoulder blade and causes stiffness and pain.
  • Rotator cuff impingement, which is when the tendons of the rotator cuff are squeezed between the humerus and another bone.
  • Rotator cuff tendinitis, which is an inflammation of the tendons caused by overhead use, repetitive motion, or physical strain from lifting something too heavy.
  • Rotator cuff tear, which is the most severe of injuries, occurs when the tendon is weakened by age or the existing pain has been neglected for too long, and the things that caused the tendinitis have now caused the tendon to tear.
Diagram of the shoulder anatomy, including the rotator cuff muscles.

Diagram of the shoulder anatomy, including the rotator cuff muscles.

Rotator Cuff Injury Symptoms

  • Severe or intermittent pain in the shoulder
  • Loss of range of motion in the shoulder
  • Inability to abduct, or lift the arm away from the body
  • Pain when reaching overhead
  • Pain when reaching behind your back
  • Pain when sleeping on the affected side
  • An inclination to protect your shoulder or keep your shoulder from moving

No matter how minor the pain is, the location of the pain should compel you to seek out the advice of your family doctor. As I stated before, a wrong self-diagnosis can lead to more serious complications. Not addressing the pain, if it persists for more than a couple of days, can actually cause more severe damage to the area. Tendons are tough but can only take so much strain. Weakened tendons that are already exhibiting the symptoms of tendinitis can tear and cause immobility of the arm and shoulder.

Most cuff injuries are the result of chronic issues which develop over a period of time through neglecting or ignoring the pain. Acute issues are those that are sudden and usually caused by some sort of trauma.

The most noticeable symptom of an acute injury is the pain. The pain radiates through the entire arm. Also, you will have a limited range of motion, especially when abducting the arm (lifting the arm away from the body).

The symptoms of chronic injuries are more subtle, which is why many people neglect or ignore them until the pain is too severe. Some symptoms include intermittent pain, atrophy or weakness of the shoulder muscle, crackling when moving the shoulder or at rest, and severe pain in the shoulder when trying to sleep.

I am not an MD, so consult with your family doctor before starting any therapeutic regimen.

MuscleFunctionTemporary ReliefBest Relief


Abducts the arm

Acetaminophen, Ibuprofen

(RICE) Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation


Externally rotates the arm

Acetaminophen, Ibuprofen

(RICE) Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation

Teres Minor

Externally rotates the arm

Acetaminophen, Ibuprofen

Cortisone injections and Stretching Exercise


Internally rotates the humerus

Acetaminophen, Ibuprofen

Surgery and Resistance Exercise


You may never find the true cause of the rotator cuff injury, but through medical tests and examinations such as an MRI, ultrasound, or nerve Induction test, the doctor can pinpoint the exact location of the injury, the exact affected muscle or tendon, and then prescribe a method of treatment.

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Treatments for pain and injuries include the following:

  • Pain medicines such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen, which have anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Corticosteroid injections, which most typically involve a shot of cortisone or another anti-inflammatory steroid.
  • Physical therapy, which includes stretching and strengthening the muscles through resistance exercising using latex resistance bands.
  • Cold compression therapy, which uses a shoulder wrap to immobilize the shoulder and also apply a cold or heat source.
  • Occupational therapy, which is similar to physical therapy but focuses on the repetitive nature of your daily work tasks.
  • Arthroscopic surgery, which is surgery through a small incision using a tool that has a camera on its end.
  • Open surgery, which requires a larger incision and more invasive procedures to cut through tissue and muscle to reach the affected torn muscle.

Exercises to Strengthen the Rotator Cuff

There are two types of exercises. The first type is intended to is strengthen the joint and prevent injuries. The second type is for those who have already had an injury and now need to rehabilitate the muscles. We’re going to focus on the second.

The first thing you need to understand is that you need to take things slow and consider the limits on your range of motion. You will want to avoid lifting anything heavy or even reaching into the backseat of your car to give your kid a smack. Just kidding about smacking the kid, but reaching for things that are still out of your range of motion can reinjure the area.

Resistance types of exercises are best. If you watch the videos you will get a good idea of how to use latex resistance bands to minimize your shoulder pain and also the proper movements for each exercise.

Resistance Band Exercises

Address Your Rotator Cuff Pain

Just to recap:

  • if you are having pain in the front of your shoulder then it is possibly related to the subscapularis muscle.
  • If the pain is in the back of and on top of the shoulder, it is possibly related to the supraspinatus muscle.
  • If the pain is in the back and just under the shoulder blade it is possibly related to the infraspinatus muscle.
  • And if the pain is in the back and closest to the armpit, then it is possibly related to the teres minor muscle.

If you have pain that persists for more than a couple of days, then go see your doctor and do not try to self diagnose. If you are wrong it can lead to more serious complications. However, if you are certain that the pain is minimal and you have not lost most of your range of motion, then exercising and strengthening your rotator cuff muscles should be a priority.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

Has This Article Been Helpful to You?

Bobby McGovern on October 22, 2019:

I was getting onto my riding lawnmower, reached across to grab the armrest and felt a horrible stabbing pain. This was two months ago. When I do certain movements, the pain is excruciating. I can no longer sleep on my right side.

Problem is, no insurance.

Glen Rix from UK on July 03, 2018:

Found this useful article via a Google search. Self diagnosis suggests I strained my supraspinitus muscle slightly a couple of weeks ago. Gritted my teeth, hoped the pain would go away, and haven’t got around to doing anything about it.I’m planning to purchase a resistance band and carry out the exercises suggested in the video.

Richard Bivins (author) from Charleston, SC on January 09, 2015:

Thank you Seraphic... even though my shoulder is about 95% healed I still use the elastic bands as part of my daily exercise routine.

Seraph from Canada on January 09, 2015:

Great Hub! Many people suffer from this, it is very disruptive to life as well as sleep. Often surgery appears to be the only form of long-lasting relief for many.

Ada on December 10, 2014:

It s been almost 3 months since I ve been fighting this sprained rotator cuff shoulder thing

YogaKat from Oahu Hawaii on March 26, 2014:

Very informative hub. Found myself here while researching for a client - he threw his shoulder out throwing a baseball. Your table is an excellent guide for pain relief. According to my research athletes and men over 40 are most prone to rotator cuff injury. These are the very ones I seldom see in my yoga classes. Stretching on a regular basis is important for everyone. Yes . . . I am a yoga fanatic, but if everyone on the planet did yoga, we would be a healthier, more spiritual people.

Funom Theophilus Makama from Europe on March 24, 2014:

I just cant express enough how important this hub is. This is such a breath-taking piece... You did an excellent job here and no doubt you deserve the thumbs up and all accolades (except "funny").. I will definitely be visiting your page once in a while to get such enrichment. Well done once again!

Richard Bivins (author) from Charleston, SC on November 28, 2013:

Kelly H it does heal but you have to follow the therapy set up by your doctor. I use the rubber band exercises regularly and it has really helped my mobility and lowered the pain. Make sure you consult with your doctor so that you are not causing more damage.

Kelly H on November 19, 2013:

I had rotator cuff surgery 7/30/13 on my right arm, kept it in the sling did the therapy. It felt good so I went back to work, I have a desk job. After 2 1/2 weeks back to work I start getting a STABBING in the top outer part of my shoulder, then I had tingling couldn't write and my arm got very tired and this continued all day until I couldn't take it anymore. My ortho pulled me out of work gave me a cortisone shot and I just had a MRI with contrast. Will be seeing the ortho Thursday still have a problem using my arm will this ever heal? I need to go back to work but it gets very irritated at work using the keys and mouse? What does this injury sounds like? Ortho says sprained rotator cuff!

Richard Bivins (author) from Charleston, SC on August 18, 2013:

Thank you thelyricwirter. As we get older its much easier to injure yourself from doing things you normally do. I re-injured my rotator cuff by moving a dresser to the second floor. It wasn't even a heavy dresser but the pressure put on my shoulder was enough to cause latent pain.

Richard Ricky Hale from West Virginia on August 18, 2013:

Richard, great article. Voted up, useful, interesting, and shared. I've had a previous injury myself, but proper exercise and stretching did the trick for me. I don't even recall how I injured my rotator, but it was minor compared to other rotator injuries. Good resource of information, take care.

Richard Bivins (author) from Charleston, SC on August 01, 2013:

They sure have Billy. My first injury came from playing football while in the Army. When they say the pain radiates through the whole arm, they're not lying. Mine radiated so badly that I actually heard sound... it was so loud that I though a helicopter was right overhead. I recently re-injured that shoulder but less severely and I use the Latex bands to stretch and strengthen my shoulder. My dad's physical therapist put me on to it and it really helps with the range of motion.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on August 01, 2013:

My college baseball pitching career ended in my junior year because of a rotator cuff injury....but back in 1968 that was unknown....we just said we threw our arm out. :) They have come a long way in treatment.

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