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Rotator Cuff Injury Treatment & Management

  • Author: Gerard A Malanga, MD; Chief Editor: Craig C Young, MD  more...
Updated: Mar 25, 2015

Acute Phase

Rehabilitation Program

Physical Therapy

Pain control and inflammation reduction are initially required to allow progression of healing and initiation of an active rehabilitation program in patients with a rotator cuff injury. This can be accomplished with a combination of relative rest, icing (20 min, 3-4 times per d), and acetaminophen or an NSAID. Have the patient sleep with a pillow between the trunk and arm to decrease tension on the supraspinatus tendon and to prevent blood flow compromise in its watershed region.

Patients are instructed to continue the pain control techniques at home, work, or vacation as part of their exercise program. The home exercise program builds on itself through each phase of the rehabilitation process, and carry-over should be monitored.

Other Treatment

Corticosteroids delivered directly to the site via injection can be considered to allow further progression of the rehabilitation program. Place injections into the subacromial space, avoiding direct injection into the rotator cuff tendon. Advise the patient to limit activity that involves high-tensile loads (eg, maximal overhead throwing) for 2-3 weeks while the tendon is potentially at risk after injection, particularly if the patient exhibits rotator cuff muscle weakness. These injections need not be given to patients with complete rotator tears, especially if surgery is being considered.


Recovery Phase

Rehabilitation Program

Physical Therapy

The recovery phase from a rotator cuff injury must include several components to be successful. These include the following: (1) restoration of shoulder ROM, (2) normalization of strength and dynamic muscle control, and (3) proprioception and dynamic joint stabilization.

Restoration of shoulder ROM

After the pain has been managed, restoration of motion can be initiated. Codman pendulum exercises, wall walking, stick or towel exercises, and/or a physical therapy program are useful in attaining full pain-free ROM. Address any posterior capsular tightness because this can lead to anterior and superior humeral head migration, resulting in impingement.

Posterior capsular tightness is common in athletes performing overhead motions (particularly throwers), because the posterior muscles and capsule are greatly stressed during the follow-through phase of the throwing motion. This activity places large eccentric loads on the posterior capsule and posterior rotator cuff musculature and can result in microtrauma and inflammation, followed by scarring and contracture.

Many overhead athletes have a great degree of external rotation with restriction of internal rotation. This was once thought to be a normal adaptation to the demands of the sport. The tight posterior capsule and the imbalance it causes forces the humeral head anterior, producing shearing of the anterior labrum and causing additional injury.

Stretching of the posterior capsule is a difficult task to isolate. The horizontal adduction that is usually performed tends to stretch the scapular stabilizers and not the posterior capsule. If care is taken to fix and stabilize the scapula, which prevents stretching of the ST stabilizers, the objective of posterior capsule stretching is obtained. The focus of treatment in this early stage should be on improving range, flexibility of the posterior capsular postural biomechanics, and restoring normal scapular motion.

Initially, ultrasonography to the posterior capsule followed by gentle passive prolonged stretch may be needed. Closely monitor ultrasonography use to avoid heating an inflamed tendon, which worsens the situation. Instruct the patient about proper posterior shoulder stretches with the scapula fixed, which should be performed after a period of aerobic exercise. Such exercise results in increasing the core body temperature. The increase in core temperature makes the tissues more extensible and allows for greater benefit from stretch. Each stretch should be held for a minimum of 30 seconds, although stretching for 1 minute is encouraged.

Postural biomechanics are important because poor posture (eg, excessive thoracic kyphosis and protracted shoulders) increases outlet narrowing, resulting in greater risk for rotator cuff impingement. Restoring normal scapular motion is also essential because the scapula is the platform upon which the GH joint rotates; thus, an unstable scapula can secondarily cause GH joint instability and resultant impingement. Scapular stabilization includes exercises such as wall push-ups and biofeedback (visual and tactile).


Perform strengthening in a pain-free range only. Begin with the ST stabilizers. The scapular stabilizers include the rhomboids, levator scapulae, trapezius, and serratus anterior. Shoulder shrugs, rowing, and push-ups isolate these muscles and help return smooth motion, allowing normal rhythm between the scapula and GH joint. Then, turn attention toward strengthening the rotator cuff muscles. Position the arm at 45° and 90° of abduction for exercises to prevent the wringing out phenomenon, in which hyperadduction can be caused, stressing the tenuous blood supply to the tendon of the exercising muscle. Avoid the thumbs-down position with the arm in greater than 90° of abduction and internal rotation to minimize subacromial impingement.

Many ways to strengthen muscles are available. The rehabilitation program usually starts with isometric and co-contractions, progresses to concentric contractions, and finally incorporates eccentric contractions as part of the preparation for return to sports. Using the baseball thrower example, the most important muscle conditioning is that of eccentric control. Eccentric forces are the most damaging to muscles, and if the patient is not fully rehabilitated and conditioned, injury occurs or reoccurs.

Additional strengthening techniques that can be used are progressive resistive exercises (PREs), Thera-Band (Hygienic Corporation; Akron, Ohio), and plyometrics. Use of isokinetic exercises has been debated because they are not performed in a functional manner. Probably the best use for isokinetic exercise machines is for objective side-to-side comparison of strength and progress made in strength rehabilitation. Incorporate endurance training into the program as it advances. When strength is restored, continue a maintenance program for fitness and prevention of reinjury.


Proprioceptive training is important to retrain neurologic control of the strengthened muscles, providing improved dynamic interaction and coupled execution of tasks for harmonious movement of the shoulder and arm. Begin tasks with closed kinetic chain exercises to provide joint stabilizing forces. Then, as the muscles become reeducated, one can progress to open chain activities, which may be used in sports or tasks.

Capsuloligamentous structures contain sensory afferents, which respond to motion and changes in joint position, whereas musculotendinous structures sense muscle length and tension. Injury can affect these afferents, which require retraining much like restrengthening the muscles. In addition, proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) is designed to stimulate muscle/tendon stretch receptors for reeducation. In a 1965 report, Kabat described shoulder PNF techniques in detail.[27]

Surgical Intervention

Indications for operative treatment of rotator cuff disease include partial-thickness or full-thickness tears in an active individual who does not have improved pain and/or function within 3-6 months with a supervised rehabilitation program. An acromioplasty is usually performed in the presence of a type II (curved) or type III (hooked) acromion with an associated rotator cuff tear. Athletes with rotator cuff pathology secondary to GH instability also need to have this addressed. Surgical treatment of a shoulder rotator cuff injury is reliable, and it provides good clinical results in patients who were operated on within the first 3 weeks after the injury.[28]

In surgical candidates, early repair is useful to avoid fatty degeneration and retraction of the remnant rotator cuff musculature. Functional recovery should be stressed, and, in a patient who can achieve pain-free activities of daily living in the setting of a rotator cuff tear, surgical repair may be avoided. Surgeries including muscle transfers and debridement are generally reserved for massive, irreparable rotator cuff tears. A latissimus dorsi tendon transfer is one type of treatment for irreparable rotator cuff tears that has demonstrated improvement in shoulder function, range of motion, strength, and pain relief.[29]

Attempts to enhance healing in rotator cuff repair have included the use of platelet-rich fibrin matrix applied to the tendon-bone interface at the time of rotator cuff repair; this technique, however, has no demonstrable effect on tendon healing or vascularity, manual muscle strength, or clinical rating scales. Whether fibrin matrix is the ideal substrate to enhance tissue healing remains unknown, and perhaps other forms of growth factors may prove to be better at enhancing tissue healing following surgery.[30]

Kissenberth et al observe that the tangent sign is an easily performed and reproducible tool with good intraobserver and interobserver reliability that is a powerful predictor of whether a rotator cuff tear will be repairable.[31]

Deniz et al evaluate the changes in fatty degeneration and atrophy of rotator cuff muscles after arthroscopic repair. The authors found that initial muscle atrophy and fatty degeneration did not improve even after a successful rotator cuff repair where the tendon anatomic integrity was maintained for at least 2 years.[32]


Maintenance Phase

Rehabilitation Program

Physical Therapy

Return to task-specific or sport-specific activities is the last phase of rehabilitation. This phase is an advanced form of proprioceptive training for the muscles to relearn previous activities. It is an important phase of rehabilitation and should be supervised properly to minimize the possibility of reinjury. Rehabilitation begins at a cognitive level but must be practiced so that transition to unconscious motor programming occurs. All various phases of shoulder injury rehabilitation may overlap and can progress as rapidly as tolerated, but all should be performed to speed recovery and prevent reinjury.

At the conclusion of formal therapy sessions, patients should be independent in an ROM and strengthening program and should continue these exercises, initially under supervision and then completely on their own. A natural tendency exists for patients to abandon the home program once they feel better; however, patients must be encouraged to continue a maintenance exercise program to prevent symptom relapse. Athletes are often tempted to return to their overhead throwing sport too soon after recovery of the acute phase.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Gerard A Malanga, MD Founder and Partner, New Jersey Sports Medicine, LLC and New Jersey Regenerative Institute; Director of Research, Atlantic Health; Clinical Professor, Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey-New Jersey Medical School; Fellow, American College of Sports Medicine

Gerard A Malanga, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine, North American Spine Society, International Spine Intervention Society, American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, American College of Sports Medicine

Disclosure: Received honoraria from Cephalon for speaking and teaching; Received honoraria from Endo for speaking and teaching; Received honoraria from Genzyme for speaking and teaching; Received honoraria from Prostakan for speaking and teaching; Received consulting fee from Pfizer for speaking and teaching.


Jay E Bowen, DO Assistant Professor, Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Rutgers New Jersey Medical School

Jay E Bowen, DO is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Osteopathy, American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, American Osteopathic College of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, North American Spine Society, Physiatric Association of Spine, Sports and Occupational Rehabilitation, American College of Sports Medicine, American Osteopathic Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Christopher J Visco, MD Assistant Professor, Department of Rehabilitation and Regenerative Medicine, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons; Assistant Residency Program Director, New York Presbyterian Hospital

Christopher J Visco, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, American Association of Neuromuscular and Electrodiagnostic Medicine, American College of Sports Medicine, American Medical Association, American Medical Student Association/Foundation, Association of Academic Physiatrists, International Spine Intervention Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Received salary from Medscape for employment. for: Medscape.

Henry T Goitz, MD Academic Chair and Associate Director, Detroit Medical Center Sports Medicine Institute; Director, Education, Research, and Injury Prevention Center; Co-Director, Orthopaedic Sports Medicine Fellowship

Henry T Goitz, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Craig C Young, MD Professor, Departments of Orthopedic Surgery and Community and Family Medicine, Medical Director of Sports Medicine, Medical College of Wisconsin

Craig C Young, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Family Physicians, American College of Sports Medicine, American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, Phi Beta Kappa

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Andrew L Sherman, MD, MS Associate Professor of Clinical Rehabilitation Medicine, Vice Chairman, Chief of Spine and Musculoskeletal Services, Program Director, SCI Fellowship and PMR Residency Programs, Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, University of Miami, Leonard A Miller School of Medicine

Andrew L Sherman, MD, MS is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, American Association of Neuromuscular and Electrodiagnostic Medicine, American Medical Association, Association of Academic Physiatrists

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Stephen G Andrus, MD Sports Medicine Fellow, Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey

Stephen G Andrus, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, American College of Sports Medicine, American Medical Association, and Physiatric Association of Spine, Sports and Occupational Rehabilitation

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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Rotator cuff, normal anatomy.
Rotator cuff tear, anterior view.
The acromioclavicular arch and the subacromial bursa.
Neer impingement test. The patient's arm is maximally elevated through forward flexion by the examiner, causing a jamming of the greater tuberosity against the anteroinferior acromion. Pain elicited with this maneuver indicates a positive test result for impingement.
Hawkins test. The examiner forward flexes the arms to 90° and then forcibly internally rotates the shoulder. This movement pushes the supraspinatus tendon against the anterior surface of the coracoacromial ligament and coracoid process. Pain indicates a positive test result for supraspinatus tendonitis.
Rotator cuff injury.
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