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Can You Avoid Rotator Cuff Surgery?

avoid surgery rotator cuff tear
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A rotator cuff tear can be painful, but in most cases, the injury can be treated with non-surgical methods.

Lifting heavy objects, playing tennis, and throwing a baseball are all activities that rely on the rotator cuff. This network of tendons and muscles secures the upper arm bone (the humerus) to the socket of the shoulder, allowing the shoulder to rotate in different directions.

Because of its mobility, the rotator cuff is vulnerable to overuse injuries or an impingement of the the tendons. Eventually, a bone spur may tear the tendons. In some instances, trauma such as an accident or fall can severely rupture the rotator cuff.

A rotator cuff tear is characterized by a dull ache that increases when you put pressure on the injured shoulder. Your arm may feel weak and you’ll likely have difficulty lifting it to complete everyday tasks, such as brushing your hair. Treatment for a torn rotator cuff depends on the severity of the tear, but in many cases, you can avoid surgery and heal with a program of physical therapy and medication.

Treating a Rotator Cuff Tear

To diagnose a rotator cuff tear, your doctor will apply pressure to various spots around your shoulder, rotate your arm, and test your muscle strength. Imaging tests (X-ray, ultrasound, and MRI) may also be used to confirm a tear.

Rotator cuff tears will not mend on their own, but partial tears, especially those in older, less active individuals, can be managed with non-surgical treatments. Initial therapy includes rest, icing, and avoiding strenuous activities. It’s important to visit an orthopedic specialist because if left untreated, the shoulder will continue to weaken, potentially progressing to arthritis.

For a partial tear, physical therapy exercises aimed at strengthening the shoulder muscles and improving the joint’s range of motion should alleviate discomfort and stiffness within six weeks to several months. Anti-inflammatory medications or steroid injections may also be prescribed to reduce pain.

For more severe tears or tears that result from a sudden trauma, surgery may be necessary. During an arthroscopic procedure, the surgeon makes small incisions into the shoulder and inserts a narrow telescope that allows him or her to view the ruptured tendon. Finally, the torn tendon is reattached to the bone with an absorbable anchor that stabilizes the tendon as it fuses to the bone. If the surgeon is unable to reattach a severely damaged tendon, he or she may replace it with a nearby tendon.

Following surgery, you’ll be advised to wear a sling for a month, although you can participate in gentle physical therapy exercises. Once the sling is off, you’ll begin more intensive therapy to build up muscle strength and restore range of motion. You should avoid heavy lifting for five months. Complete recovery takes about five to six months, at which time you can resume your normal physical activities.

Heal Your Shoulder Pain

If you’re experiencing shoulder pain and think it could be a rotator cuff tear, the doctors at New York Bone & Joint will perform a thorough examination and recommend treatment options. In many cases, you may not need surgery, and our physical therapists can manage the tear with a personalized exercise program. 

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