Ask an Expert: How Can Therapy Help If I Have a Rotator Cuff Tear?

Question: What does the rotator cuff do, and how can therapy help if I have a rotator cuff tear?

Answer: The rotator cuff is a group of four muscles that work together to perform rotational movements of the upper arm, but also to maintain stability of the joint by preventing excessive sliding around of the “ball” (head of the humerus) in the “socket” (glenoid fossa) of the shoulder and scapula, and by keeping the ball centered in the socket.

There can be normal changes in the structure of the rotator cuff musculature, just as there are in the bones of a joint as we age.  Therefore, the rotator cuff is more susceptible to tears after age 50.

A partially torn rotator cuff can improve with Occupational or Physical Therapy intervention by providing treatment to reduce pain associated with a tear. Education in activity and postural modification, as well as instruction in therapeutic exercise and activity are also provided.  The purpose of this is to increase the stability of the shoulder joint, to keep the ball centered in the socket, maximize the space through which the rotator cuff muscles travel in the top shoulder joint to decrease pressure on the rotator cuff, and increase the ease of overhead reach and rotation. This can enable one to return to pain-free function of the involved arm, to perform activities such as fixing one’s hair, throwing a ball, playing golf, or casting that fishing line!

Erin Winters, OTR at Putnam County Hospital