Can Physical Therapy Help Repair a Rotator Cuff Tear?

Woman performing a shoulder exercise as part of her physical therapy

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Rotator cuff tears are a common problem. In fact, rotator cuff tears become a normal finding as people get older. Studies have shown that 30% of those under the age of 70 and 70% of those over age 80 have a rotator cuff tear. And these are people with no symptoms of shoulder pain.

Physical therapy is often recommended as an initial treatment for a rotator cuff tear. However, physical therapy doesn't help the torn rotator cuff tendon heal. So why is this often used as the first treatment?

Treatment of a Rotator Cuff Tear

The goal of treating a rotator cuff tear is not necessarily to heal the torn tendon. People can often achieve pain relief and improved strength by relieving inflammation and restoring shoulder joint mechanics. This can be accomplished with physical therapy and anti-inflammatory treatments, including medications, cortisone injections, and ice application.

Physical Therapy

The goal of physical therapy is to improve the function of the muscles that surround the shoulder. Most people, athletes, and weight-lifters included, only strengthen a few of the large muscles around the shoulder. Physical therapy targets the smaller, but important muscles around the shoulder that are commonly neglected. By strengthening these muscles, therapy can help compensate for damaged tendons and improve the mechanics of the shoulder joint.

It can be difficult to grasp the concept that the rotator cuff tear does not necessarily need to close for the pain to be resolved. However, the truth is that the vast majority of patients who have a rotator cuff tear will not need surgical treatment. Determining when surgery is necessary for a rotator cuff tear depends on a number of factors, which you can discuss with your doctor.

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Article Sources

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  • Iannotti, JP "Full-Thickness Rotator Cuff Tears: Factors Affecting Surgical Outcome." Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, Mar 1994; 2: 87-95.