Physical therapist helping a patient with a rotator cuff injury.

Rotator cuff tears, a common injury, send as many as 2 million Americans to their physicians’ offices yearly. While many cases can be treated with conservative measures, such as physical therapy, others require rotator cuff repair surgery. One factor affecting surgery outcome is the presence of fat in place of muscle, a condition that often makes surgery less successful. Even if that is the case, a good rehabilitation regimen can help maximize your recovery.

The rotator cuff is a system of muscles and tendons that keep the ball at the top of the upper arm in place. A fall can cause an acute tear of the rotator cuff. Repetitive stress, bone spurs, or a lack of blood supply can also cause a chronic degenerative tear.

Physical Therapy Reduces Need for Surgery

In about half of patients with a rotator cuff injury, rest, strengthening exercises, physical therapy, and other nonsurgical treatments will relieve pain and improve shoulder function. However, for larger tears and pain lasting more than six months, your physician may recommend surgery.

In some more serious cases, muscles have atrophied and are no longer attached to the bone. Even worse, fat may have replaced some atrophied muscle. Doctors can find this substance, called fatty infiltrate, with magnetic resonance imaging.

Patients with fatty infiltrate in the rotator cuff have poorer outcomes after surgery because, among other reasons, the loss of muscle is irreversible. In some cases, if the physician finds that surgery will not help, other treatments, including training the deltoid muscle to take over the work of the shoulder, might be successful.

A woman recovering from a rotator cuff injury.

Physical Therapy Helps with a Torn Rotator Cuff

Physical therapy is an important component of recovery from a torn rotator cuff. Regardless of which course of treatment your physician recommends, we will work with you and your physician. We help strengthen your muscles and improve your shoulder strength and range of motion.

Rotator cuff surgery usually requires four to six months for primary recovery. Whether surgery goes smoothly or not, sticking with the rehabilitation program we design for you is the key to a successful outcome.

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