Dealing With a Rotator Cuff Tear? Feel Better With These Tips and Exercises

Learn more about rotator cuff tears, common symptoms and causes, and get recommended exercises from physical therapists.

Published Date: Apr 11, 2024

Dealing With a Rotator Cuff Tear? Feel Better With These Tips and Exercises

Learn more about rotator cuff tears, common symptoms and causes, and get recommended exercises from physical therapists.

Published Date: Apr 11, 2024

Dealing With a Rotator Cuff Tear? Feel Better With These Tips and Exercises

Learn more about rotator cuff tears, common symptoms and causes, and get recommended exercises from physical therapists.

Published Date: Apr 11, 2024

Dealing With a Rotator Cuff Tear? Feel Better With These Tips and Exercises

Learn more about rotator cuff tears, common symptoms and causes, and get recommended exercises from physical therapists.

Published Date: Apr 11, 2024
Table of Contents

If you’ve been told you have a “rotator cuff tear,” it’s okay to be a little alarmed. Hearing you’ve torn something in your body can sound a little scary. But don’t panic: A rotator cuff tear is just the name for an injury to your rotator cuff, which is a group of muscles and tendons that surround your shoulder joint

Rotator cuff tears are common, especially as you get older. And, in about two-thirds of the cases, they’re completely asymptomatic, which means that people don’t even know they have them because they aren’t causing them any pain.

In many cases, you can treat a rotator cuff tear with physical therapy and conservative, at-home care. And you’ll usually be able to resume regular activities within six to 12 weeks, says Julianne Payton, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. Still, it’s important to stay active with rotator cuff exercises while you’re recuperating, so you can keep your shoulder joint flexible and mobile. If pain persists after treatment or if the tear is a result of an acute injury, surgery may be an appropriate next step.

Here, learn more about rotator cuff tears and how to treat them, especially with exercises from our Hinge Health physical therapists.

Our Hinge Health Experts

Julianne Payton, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Payton is a Hinge Health physical therapist with 8 years of experience and specializes in ergonomics and workplace injuries.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.

What Is the Rotator Cuff?

Your shoulder is made up of three bones: your upper arm bone (humerus), your shoulder blade (scapula), and your collarbone. The shoulder is referred to as a ball-and-socket joint because the head of the humerus fits into the socket of the scapula. 

The rotator cuff is made up of four muscles and tendons that originate from the shoulder blade and attach to the head of the humerus, forming a "cuff" around it. This structure enables the arm to move in multiple directions, allowing for various arm motions such as lifting, pushing, and rotating, all while keeping the shoulder joint in place.

“Your rotator cuff muscles work together to move your arms overhead, out to the side, and behind you, and they help you rotate your shoulders as well,” explains Dr. Payton.

What Is a Rotator Cuff Tear?

A rotator cuff tear is simply a tear in one of the rotator cuff tendons. There are two main kinds:

  • Partial tear. The tendon has a tear, but the tear does not include the full thickness of the tendon.

  • Full-thickness tear. In this case, the full thickness of the tendon is torn.  

Symptoms of a Rotator Cuff Tear

If a tear is due to a sudden injury, you may experience intense pain and weakness in your upper arm. But if it’s due to overuse — the more common cause — symptoms can develop slowly, notes Dr. Payton. Common rotator cuff tear symptoms include:

  • Pain in your shoulder when you lift your arm. “At first, it’s mild and you may notice it only when you lift your arm overhead,” explains Dr. Payton. “But over time, you may notice it even when you’re not doing anything, or when you’re lying on the shoulder at night.”

  • Arm weakness. It may be hard to do daily activities, like reaching into a cupboard, combing your hair, or lifting something.

  • Crepitus, or a crackling noise and sensation, when you move your shoulder.

Rotator Cuff Tear: A Hinge Health Perspective

If you have a rotator cuff tear, you may think you need to bandage up your shoulder and not use it until you heal. Nothing could be further from the truth. “I tell my patients that the rotator cuff is like a sock that fits around your shoulder,” explains Dr. Payton. “If you have a small tear in your sock, it’s still useful. You don’t have to throw it out.” The exact same thing is true for a rotator cuff tear. “If there’s a tear in one area, your other shoulder muscles can work together to compensate while you heal,” she adds.

That’s where physical therapy comes in. “A rotator cuff tear can be very painful initially, so you may be tempted to avoid movement, but that isn’t ideal for musculoskeletal and joint health,” says Dr. Payton. A physical therapist can work with you on gentle, assisted exercises to help your shoulder move. “The goal is to relieve pain, and increase shoulder function,” explains Dr. Payton. “If we build up strength around the whole shoulder itself, as well as the rotator cuff, you’ll be able to use your shoulder normally.”

You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.

Rotator Cuff Tear Causes

Rotator cuff tears are often the result of normal, age-related changes, says Dr. Payton. “Our movement habits can change as we age, often leading to less activity,” she explains. “When you do less, there’s less blood flow to your rotator cuff muscles and tendons. This makes it harder for your body to keep these tendons and muscles strong and resilient, which can contribute to a tear.”

But age isn't the only thing that can contribute to a rotator cuff tear. Other common rotator cuff causes include:

  • Specific sports. People who play sports that require a lot of overhead motions, such as tennis, baseball, and rowing, are more likely to develop tears over time.

  • Certain occupations. If your job requires a lot of overhead work — like being a painter or a carpenter — you may be more at risk.

  • Other medical conditions. Research suggests people who have high blood pressure or type 2 diabetes may be more likely to develop a tear, most likely because of less blood flow to the area.

  • Smoking. This habit can also make you more likely to develop a tear, most likely because of impeded blood flow.

  • Shoulder Injury. If you have a bad fall, or other trauma to your shoulder, you can tear your rotator cuff. “We usually see this in younger patients,” explains Dr. Payton.

Treatment Options

If you have a rotator cuff tear, it’s important to get treatment. While a tear won’t heal on its own, there’s a lot you can do to relieve pain and restore strength to the affected shoulder, says Dr. Payton. Here are the rotator cuff treatments Hinge Health physical therapists recommend:

Physical therapy. This is the mainstay of rotator cuff treatment, stresses Dr. Payton. Therapy will vary depending on the severity of your tear. Initially, your physical therapist will focus on gentle stretching and strengthening to prevent muscles from weakening and tightening up. As your pain improves, they’ll focus on strengthening your shoulder and rotator cuff muscles. “The goal is to gradually load the muscles until they’re able to exercise without pain, and with close to full range of motion,” explains Dr. Payton. The goal, of course, is to get you back to the activities you love. Research shows that about 75% of people who do physical therapy for rotator cuff tears for at least three months experience significant improvement.

Over the counter (OTC) medication. Pain relievers, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve) and acetaminophen (Tylenol), can be helpful for shoulder pain related to rotator cuff tears. It’s important to make sure that you are safely able to take these medications, based on your medical history. Another option is the over the counter NSAID topical cream diclofenac (Voltaren).

Ice and heat. Ice is often more helpful in the first few days to reduce pain and swelling, says Dr. Payton. Apply it to the upper and outer portion of your shoulder muscle for 15 to 20 minutes every four to six hours. After about three days, you can use ice or heat. Test each out to see if one helps reduce symptoms like pain and stiffness more than the other.

Activity modifications. Movement is very important when healing from a rotator cuff tear to increase blood flow and healing nutrients to the area, says Dr. Payton. But initially, you may need to modify certain activities, such as overhead motions, that cause a lot of pain. You’ll be able to gradually work back to doing your activities normally as your rotator cuff muscles heal and become stronger. Here are some things to try if you’re having pain with specific movements:

  • Try lifting objects close to your body to reduce pain.

  • Consider lifting light weights, and lift only to below shoulder level. This includes reducing the weight of grocery bags or handheld purses or briefcases that you normally carry.

  • Temporarily avoid or modify pushing exercises, such as pushups, bench presses, flies, and shoulder presses, if they cause a lot of pain.

  • Do sidestroke or breaststroke if the forward crawl is irritating your shoulder when you swim.

  • Adjust how hard you throw balls overhead, or even consider throwing balls underhand for a period of time.

Most people with rotator cuff tears see significant improvement in both pain and function within six to 12 weeks of starting physical therapy, says Dr. Payton. If you don’t, you should consult an orthopedic specialist. You may benefit from a steroid injection, which can help reduce pain and inflammation, or surgery.

A Word About Surgery

The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons recommends non-surgical treatments like strengthening exercises and physical therapy as first-line treatments for most tears. If symptoms haven’t improved after six to 12 months, you may be a candidate for surgery, especially if your tear is large (more than 3 cm).

Exercises for Rotator Cuff Tears

Get 100+ similar exercises for free

  • Shoulder Flexion Isometric
  • Forward Table Slides
  • Shoulder Rows
  • Scapular Squeeze
  • Seated Back Extensions

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These exercises are recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists. While they can help strengthen and stretch rotator cuff muscles to make it easier for a tear to heal, these moves are also great for shoulder health more generally, says Dr. Payton. Try to do these several times a week to help prevent injury, especially if you engage in a lot of overhead movements for work or fun.

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

PT Tip: Break It Up

You can’t always prevent shoulder injuries or rotator cuff tears, but if you do a lot of repetitive overhead work, you can take frequent short breaks as a preventative measure, advises Dr. Payton. “Every 20 minutes, relax and let your arms rest,” she says. 

How Hinge Health Can Help You

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you. 

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you. 

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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References 

  1. Minagawa, H., Yamamoto, N., Abe, H., Fukuda, M., Seki, N., Kikuchi, K., Kijima, H., & Itoi, E. (2013). Prevalence of symptomatic and asymptomatic rotator cuff tears in the general population: From mass-screening in one village. Journal of Orthopaedics, 10(1), 8–12. doi:10.1016/j.jor.2013.01.008

  2. May, T., & Garmel, G. M. (2023, June 26). Rotator Cuff Injury. PubMed; StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK547664/ 

  3. Kuhn, J. E., Dunn, W. R., Sanders, R., An, Q., Baumgarten, K. M., Bishop, J. Y., Brophy, R. H., Carey, J. L., Holloway, B. G., Jones, G. L., Ma, C. B., Marx, R. G., McCarty, E. C., Poddar, S. K., Smith, M. V., Spencer, E. E., Vidal, A. F., Wolf, B. R., & Wright, R. W. (2013). Effectiveness of physical therapy in treating atraumatic full-thickness rotator cuff tears: a multicenter prospective cohort study. Journal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery, 22(10), 1371–1379. doi:10.1016/j.jse.2013.01.026

  4. Abate, M., Di Carlo, L., Salini, V., & Schiavone, C. (2017). Risk factors associated to bilateral rotator cuff tears. Orthopaedics & Traumatology: Surgery & Research, 103(6), 841–845. doi:10.1016/j.otsr.2017.03.027

  5. Kim, Y.-S., Kim, S.-E., Bae, S.-H., Lee, H.-J., Jee, W.-H., & Park, C. K. (2016). Tear progression of symptomatic full-thickness and partial-thickness rotator cuff tears as measured by repeated MRI. Knee Surgery, Sports Traumatology, Arthroscopy, 25(7), 2073–2080. doi:10.1007/s00167-016-4388-3

  6. Sambandam, S. N. (2015). Rotator cuff tears: An evidence based approach. World Journal of Orthopedics, 6(11), 902. doi:10.5312/wjo.v6.i11.902

  7. McGrath, T. (2023, October 27). Management of rotator cuff tears. UpToDate. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/management-of-rotator-cuff-tears 

  8. Simons, S. M., Dixon, J. B., & Kruse, D. (2023, May 11). Presentation and diagnosis of rotator cuff tears. UpToDate. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/presentation-and-diagnosis-of-rotator-cuff-tears