Rotator Cuff Tendinitis

Understand the symptoms, how to treat it, and prevent it from happening again.

What is rotator cuff tendinitis?

Rotator cuff tendinitis (also called rotator cuff tendinopathy) is a common condition that causes shoulder pain.

Your rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that connect your arm to your shoulder and help you lift and rotate your arm. Using it too much or normal wear-and-tear can create inflammation known as tendinitis.

Rotator cuff tendinitis is common among athletes and manual laborers because they raise their arms over their head repeatedly.

The tendonitis will improve if you can stop any activities that require you to put your arms over your head.

What is causing your symptoms?

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Most common symptoms

  • Pain in your upper arm or shoulder when lifting your arm over your head.
  • Neck pain.
  • Pain when sleeping on the hurt shoulder.
  • Tenderness when you touch the shoulder.
  • Muscle weakness when you try to do overhead movements, like throwing a ball.

Pro Tip

The shoulder is the most mobile joint in the body. It is also the most unstable. As you lift your arm, the rotator cuff muscles help to stabilize the ball part of the shoulder joint in the socket. If the rotator cuff is not working as it should, it can be very painful or even impossible to lift the arm above waist level. —Dr. Benjamin Schwartz

Rotator cuff tendinitis causes

Rotator cuff tendinitis is an overuse injury. It happens because you’re using the tendons at your shoulder too much or too intensely. And maybe with bad form.

It may also happen because of wear-and-tear over time. This creates inflammation of the tendons, which can lead to pain, redness, and swelling as the body is trying to heal itself.

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How do you treat rotator cuff tendinitis?

Pro Tip

While an MRI isn’t often needed in cases of rotator cuff tendinosis, it can be helpful to evaluate the rotator cuff tendons to make sure there is not tearing or some other abnormality that may also be causing pain. —Dr. Schwartz

  • Stop doing the movement that caused the injury.
  • Use good form and technique in sports and your job.
  • Ice the muscle if it's sore, especially after you’ve been exercising or using your arms for work. You can also use moist heat.
  • Your doctor may recommend physical therapy, where you can learn which strengthening and stretching exercises will help with the pain and recovery.
  • Use a pain medication.
    • Try an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID)—like ibuprofen, naproxen, which can also help reduce inflammation. Or take acetaminophen for the pain. Do not take either for more than 10 days as they have side effects if taken for too long. If you have other health issues—like kidney or stomach problems—discuss with your doctor which one is best and for how long.
    • If you do not have relief, ask your doctor about cortisone steroid injection. This is injected at the muscle. It’s a stronger pain reliever than NSAIDs.

If the tendinitis is from a sport, talk to your coach. They can give you tips on your technique and form to reduce your risk of the tendinitis coming back.

If your shoulder and arm pain lasts more than a few days, see your doctor. You might need more than one cortisone injection. Or you may want to see an orthopedic surgeon.

The doctor will examine your shoulder carefully and ask you to do a few physical movements to check when and where you feel pain and to assess your range of motion and strength of your shoulder. You may need X-rays, an ultrasound, or an MRI to help rule out a fracture or for a better view of the ligaments and tendons.

How do I know if I have damaged my rotator cuff?

If you have rotator cuff tendinitis, you’ll feel pain in your shoulder or upper arm when you try to do overhead activities or lift your arm. Like reaching for something on a shelf, throwing a ball, putting on a shirt, or brushing your hair. You might also feel pain when you sleep on the bad shoulder.

If you’re an athlete, continuing to play your sport might make the pain worse.

Rotator cuff tendinitis has symptoms similar to shoulder trauma, soft tissue swelling, nerve problems, arthritis, rotator cuff tears, and shoulder impingement. Your doctor will help make the correct diagnosis.

What makes you more likely to have rotator cuff tendinitis

Dr. Rx

A job that requires you to do work above shoulder level, such as stocking high shelves, puts you at risk of developing rotator cuff tendinosis. One of the most common histories for someone who presents to the doctor with shoulder pain and rotator cuff tendinosis is having been painting or hanging wallpaper at home. —Dr. Schwartz

Athletes who use their arms a lot or manual laborers are at increased risk of rotator cuff tendinitis because of the repetitive movements. Risk factors include:

  • Using your arm over your head repeatedly. Like pitching, serving (in tennis), weightlifting, gymnastics, or volleyball.
  • Jobs that require a lot of overhead activity, like construction or painting.
  • Bad form when exercising (especially when tired).
  • Aging (because of wear-and-tear over time).

Prevention

  • Fix your form in sports.
  • If you do manual labor for work, ask for more training on how to lift properly.
  • Do strengthening exercises for your rotator cuff.
  • If you are overweight, lose weight.
  • Avoid sleeping on side with the sensitive shoulder.
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