What is a Rotator Cuff Tear? The Symptoms & Treatment Options

Written by Leah Bell-Steele
Physiotherapist, University of Queensland
Medically reviewed by Dr Gina Arena
Research Fellow, University of Western Australia
Reviewed on July 22, 2022

A close up of a woman, holding her left shoulder in pain

Rotator cuff tears are an injury to the major muscles and tendons that keep your shoulder joint stable and allows you to lift and rotate your arms. The tendon is torn, resulting in pain and limitation of shoulder movements.

The rotator cuff is a group of strong muscles and tendons that stabilise the shoulder joint and allow overhead and rotational movements of the arms.[1] Unfortunately, the rotator cuff is prone to injuries due to its role in our daily activities.

What are the symptoms of a rotator cuff tear?

A rotator cuff tear can limit your arm movements and cause muscle weakness. However, pain and other symptoms may take time to appear and gradually develop due to degenerative conditions.[2]

Here are some of the most common symptoms of rotator cuff tear:

It is best to consult your physiotherapist if symptoms persist for more than a week. These symptoms can also signify other conditions that may need professional help.

Causes of rotator cuff tears?

Rotator cuff injuries result from repetitive stress on the rotator cuff muscles without proper recovery. In addition, overuse and overstretch of the tendons of the rotator cuff can result in tears and inflammation.

Racket athletes and painters are prone to this injury due to the overuse of their rotator cuff muscles. In addition, car accidents or falls can also lead to high impact injury to the rotator cuff.

Who is at risk of tearing their rotator cuff ?

Young, active individuals are more likely to injure their rotator cuff. Athletes who consistently use their shoulders such as tennis players and baseball players are prone to chronic overuse injuries.

Lifting too heavy or sudden awkward shoulder motion can result in tears in the rotator cuff muscles. Additionally, jobs that require extensive lifting and overhead shoulder movements such as carpentry and painting can also damage the shoulder muscles.

How are rotator cuff tears diagnosed?

Your physiotherapist will check your range of motion and muscle strength to check the status of your shoulder and identify possible causes of your symptoms.

Physiotherapists use comprehensive physical assessments to rule out other conditions such as nerve impingements and referred pain syndromes.

Additional imaging scans may be done to further examine your shoulder region's structures. For example, a MRI and ultrasound can determine the severity of tears to the muscles and tendons. Additionally, an X-ray can scan for bone growths that can grind with the rotator cuff tendons during shoulder movements causing inflammation.

How is a rotator cuff tear treated?

Treatments depend on the severity and nature of an injury. Minor tears can be treated by rest and controlled strengthening exercises. However, complete tears may require surgery to restore normal shoulder function.

Conservative treatments include:

  • Applying cold packs to reduce inflammation.

  • Applying hot packs to reduce muscle spasms.

  • Strengthening exercises to keep the shoulder joint stable and restore normal muscle strength.

  • Physiotherapy to promote optimal healing and restore function.

  • Steroid injection and over the counter medications for inflammation.

  • Resting

How to prevent rotator cuff tears?

Frequent rest breaks are recommended for people with occupations that use a lot of overhead shoulder movements.

Athletes should prioritise strengthening the rotator cuff muscles during their exercises. Ask a sports physiotherapist to guide you with your training program and exercises.

Proper recovery periods are essential in preventing overuse injuries. Therefore, ensure that you include warm-up and cool-down periods in your training and sports routine.


Conservative treatment for non-severe and partial tears is usually effective in addressing pain and restoring shoulder function. However, severe cases of rotator cuff tear may require surgical intervention to allow full recovery of the shoulder.

Through physiotherapy, athletes can return to their pre-injury state and optimise their sports performance to prevent re-injuring their shoulders.

Written by Leah Bell-Steele
Physiotherapist, University of Queensland
Published on July 22, 2022
Medically reviewed by Dr Gina Arena
Research Fellow, University of Western Australia
Reviewed on July 22, 2022
Medical reviewers
Last medically reviewed on July 22, 2022
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