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 or loss of shoulder and arm function.

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.

So which exercises might be prescribed by your physical therapist, and what is a typical exercise progression for a rotator cuff tear?

Generally, your rotator cuff rehab will progress with gently range of motion exercises. This can be accomplished by using your arms to lift a wand or cane overhead. Shoulder pulleys may also be used to improve shoulder range of motion and flexibility.

Isometric exercises for your rotator cuff muscles may then be done. This type of exercise can improve the way your muscles around your shoulder contract and offer more support to your shoulder joint.

Scapular stabilization exercises may also be done to improve the function of the muscles that surround your shoulder blade. This can help improve the way your shoulder joint, arm, and scapulae move together when you use your arm.

Finally, advanced rotator cuff strengthening can be done with a dumbbell or resistance band.

Common exercises that may help you recover from a rotator cuff tear may include:

Be sure you consult your physician or physical therapist before starting these, or any other, exercises for your rotator cuff tear. Performing the exercises correctly is of utmost importance to prevent further pain or problems with your shoulders. Plus, you should do exercises that are specific for your condition. While general exercises are great, specific and focused exercises can help you quickly get back to your normal function with your shoulder.

A Word From Verywell

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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  1. Geary MB, Elfar JC. Rotator cuff tears in the elderly patients. Geriatr Orthop Surg Rehabil. 2015;6(3):220-4. doi:10.1177/2151458515583895

Additional Reading

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