Beware of Shoulder Rotator Cuff Tears

The life of a professional athlete inspires images of success, money, and ease that most of us can only dream of. But professional sports require grueling workout schedules, practice sessions, and intense game-day routines. An athlete's body endures a constant beating in training, and it's far too easy to cross the line from helpful stress into repetitive stress injuries.

Likewise, the weekend warrior and anyone doing physical labor are at risk for these same types of injuries, especially in the shoulder and upper extremities, and especially when improper lifting technique is used. One of the most common shoulder injuries is the rotator cuff tear. The rotator cuff is the soft tissue in the "socket" of the shoulder's ball-and-socket joint, which is the joint that gives the shoulders a range of motion that is greater than anywhere else in the body.

The rotator cuff is composed of four muscle groups. The rotator cuff is protected by a lubricating sac, known as the bursa. The bursa shields the cuff from the bone on top of the shoulder and allows the rotator cuff tendons to glide freely with arm movement. When the tendons are injured, this bursa can become inflamed and painful, which limits arm activity. Pitchers are especially prone to rotator cuff injuries caused by repetitive overhead activities and trauma. Rotator cuff injuries have symptoms similar to other soft-tissue injuries: shoulder pain, weakness, and loss of range of motion and activity.

If you have a rotator cuff injury, your shoulder pain might exacerbate during the night, while you are otherwise at rest. You might also feel crackling sensations when you move your shoulder. The good news is that a rotator cuff can be quite resilient. More than 50 percent of rotator cuff injuries can be treated using non-surgical orthopedic treatments, though this naturally depends on the size and duration of the tear.

Conservative treatment usually includes rest, activity modification, physical therapy, and the use of anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen and naproxen. If the inflammation and pain continue, the next step might be a cortisone steroid injection. If there are continued symptoms beyond six months, then surgical consultation may be needed to aid in full tendon healing.

Here are tips to help prevent shoulder injury:

-- Stretch your shoulder dynamically before performing intensive workouts.

-- Rest your shoulder regularly during practice and sports games.

-- Apply an ice pack if you experience shoulder pain.

-- Consider taking an anti-inflammatory pill to prevent swelling.

Whether you are a professional ballplayer or do work that involves repetitive heavy lifting, know your body's limits and how to manage injuries properly. Do not hesitate to see a physician if your arm becomes weak or has a loss of range of motion beyond 24 hours.