What Is Rotator Cuff Injury?

Rotator cuff injury

The rotator cuff is a group of tendons and muscles that surround the shoulder and connect the upper arm (humerus) to the shoulder blade (scapula). The tendons provide stability to the shoulder, while the muscles allow the shoulder to rotate.

A network of four muscles (teres minor, infraspinatus, supraspinatus and subscapularis) come together as tendons to form a covering around the head of the humerus. The rotator cuff attaches the upper arm to the shoulder blade and helps to lift and rotate your arm.

People who repeatedly perform overhead motions in their jobs or sports are most susceptible to rotator cuff injuries. The risk of rotator cuff injury also increases with age.


When a tear occurs suddenly (for instance, from a fall), the pain is usually very intense and there is typically a snapping sensation and immediate weakness in your upper arm. However, for tears that develop slowly, the pain is described as a dull ache and can be accompanied by:

  • Trouble sleeping, particularly on the affected shoulder
  • Difficulty and weakness lifting and lowering arms
  • Arm weakness
  • Crackling sensation when moving shoulder in certain positions

Treatment at Penn

Treatment very much depends on the severity of the damage.

If the rotator cuff is simply injured with no tear present, conservation treatments – such as rest, ice and physical therapy or medication– are often all that is needed to recover. If the symptoms have been present for over six months, involves a complete tear of the muscle or tendon or has caused significant weakness and loss of function in the shoulder, surgery is likely needed.

Penn Programs & Services for Rotator Cuff Injury

Provider holding patient's shoulder while patient holds neck
Shoulder Pain

Penn orthopaedic specialists offer comprehensive surgical and nonsurgical options to treat every type of shoulder condition.

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Sports Medicine Program

We know you want to get back to your favorite activities. Learn about our unique approach to the prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and rehabilitation of sports-related injuries.

Sports Rehabilitation

Penn Medicine’s Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation department diagnoses and treats a variety of sports-related injuries.

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