Rotator Cuff: Definition and What it is

Medically and clinically reviewed by Jonathan Lee, MD and Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT

Rotator Cuff Definition and Meaning

The rotator cuff is made up of four muscles and tendons (fibrous bands of connective tissue that link muscles and bones) in the shoulder that provide stability and enable a wide range of shoulder joint movements.

Your shoulder is made up of three bones: your upper arm bone (humerus), your shoulder blade (scapula), and your collarbone. The muscles and tendons of your rotator cuff form a covering around the head of the upper arm bone and attach it to your shoulder blade. You engage your rotator cuff during a variety of movements, like throwing a baseball, treading water with your arms, and even simple activities like reaching for an object on a high shelf. 

Anatomy of the Rotator Cuff

The rotator cuff consists of four key muscles — supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis — along with their associated tendons. The supraspinatus muscle is heavily involved in lifting the arm sideways, while the infraspinatus and teres minor contribute to external rotation of the arm. 

These four muscles originate from the shoulder blade and attach to the head of the upper arm bone, 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.

Common Rotator Cuff Injuries

Sometimes you can experience pain, stiffness, or other issues with your rotator cuff. When this happens, it can take a toll on your ability to do daily activities (like reaching overhead to put on a shirt, lifting objects like a backpack or bag of groceries, or even turning the steering wheel as you drive) or engage in sports or hobbies you love. Your rotator cuff is strong and resilient, but sometimes it can get irritated when you do more activity than your body is ready for, or if you experience trauma to the area. 

You may hear about rotator cuff tears, which can sound alarming. All this really means is you’ve injured one of the tendons in the rotator cuff (most tears occur in the supraspinatus tendon). In most cases, your body can recover from such issues with conservative treatment, such as over-the-counter pain medication and stretching and strengthening exercises that target the shoulder.

Rotator Cuff: A Hinge Health Perspective

The rotator cuff plays a crucial role in shoulder function and mobility, so it’s important to engage in exercises that keep it strong and flexible to help prevent injury and pain with activity. And research shows that a regular exercise program can help people with rotator cuff issues reduce pain and improve quality of life. 

Range-of-motion exercises help maintain joint mobility and the flexibility of shoulder muscles and tendons, while shoulder strengthening exercises help maintain functional use of your shoulder and arm and prevent future injury. A physical therapist can also work with you on a strengthening and stretching plan. You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit. 

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.


  1. Athwal, S. & Armstrong, A. D. (2022, June). Rotator Cuff Tears. OrthoInfo. 

  2. Armstrong, A. D. (2021, July). Shoulder Impingement/Rotator Cuff Tendonitis. OrthoInfo. 

  3. Christensen, B. H., Andersen, K. S., Rasmussen, S., Andreasen, E. L., Nielsen, L. M., & Jensen, S. L. (2016). Enhanced function and quality of life following 5 months of exercise therapy for patients with irreparable rotator cuff tears – an intervention study. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, 17(1). doi:10.1186/s12891-016-1116-6

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