Move Forward Guide
Physical Therapist's Guide to
Rotator Cuff Tendinitis
Disorders of the rotator cuff and the tissues around it are the most common causes of shoulder pain in people over 40 years of age. Rotator cuff tendinitis occurs when a shoulder tendon (a bundle of fibers connecting muscle to bone) is irritated and becomes sore. With continued irritation, the tendon can begin to break down, causing tendinosis—a chronic, long-term condition. People who perform repetitive or overhead arm movements, such as weightlifters, overhead athletes, and manual laborers are most at risk for developing rotator cuff tendinitis. Poor posture can also contribute to its development. A physical therapist can help you identify and correct risk factors for rotator cuff tendinitis, and help you decrease your pain while improving your shoulder motion and strength.
What is Rotator Cuff Tendinitis?
The rotator cuff muscles are a group of 4 muscles that attach the humerus (upper-arm bone) to the scapula (shoulder blade). The rotator cuff muscles help raise, rotate, and stabilize the upper arm. A tendon is a bundle of fibers that connect the muscles to the bone. Rotator cuff tendinitis occurs when the tendon connected to the rotator cuff muscles becomes inflamed and irritated. It can be caused by:
- Poor posture, such as rounded shoulders caused by leaning over a computer for long periods of time.
- Repetitive arm movements, such as those performed by a hair stylist or painter.
- Overhead shoulder motions, such as those performed by baseball pitchers or swimmers.
- Tight muscles and tissues around the shoulder joint.
- Weakness and muscle imbalances in the shoulder blade and shoulder muscles.
- Bony abnormalities of the shoulder region that cause the tendons to become pinched (shoulder impingement syndrome).
How Does it Feel?
Rotator cuff tendinitis is characterized by shoulder pain that can occur gradually over time or start quite suddenly. The pain occurs in the shoulder region and sometimes radiates into the upper arm. It does not usually radiate past the elbow region. You may be symptom free at rest or experience a mild, dull ache; however, pain can be moderate to severe with certain shoulder movements. Reaching behind the body to perform a motion, as in fastening a seat belt, can be very painful. So can overhead activities, such as throwing, swimming, reaching into a cupboard, or combing your hair. The pain can worsen at night, especially when rolling over or attempting to sleep on the painful side. You may notice weakness when lifting and reaching for household items. Holding a heavy platter or taking a pan off the stove may become difficult.
How Is It Diagnosed?
A physical therapist will perform an evaluation and ask you questions about the pain and other symptoms you are feeling. Your therapist may perform strength and motion tests on your shoulder, ask about your job duties and hobbies, evaluate your posture, and check for any muscle imbalances and weakness that can occur between the shoulder and the scapular muscles. Your physical therapist will gently touch your shoulder in specific areas to determine which tendon or tendons are inflamed, and special tests may need to be performed to determine this.
How Can a Physical Therapist Help?
It is important to get proper treatment for tendinitis as soon as it occurs. A degenerated tendon that is not treated can begin to tear causing a more serious condition. Physical therapy can be very successful in treating rotator cuff tendinitis, tendinosis, and shoulder impingement syndrome. You will work with your physical therapist to devise a treatment plan that is specific to your condition and goals. Your individual treatment program may include:
Pain management. Your physical therapist will help you identify and avoid painful movements to allow the inflamed tendon to heal. Ice, ice massage, or moist heat maybe used for pain management. Therapeutic modalities, such as iontophoresis (medication delivered through an electrically charged patch) and ultrasound may be applied.
Manual therapy. Your physical therapist may use manual techniques, such as gentle joint movements, soft-tissue massage, and shoulder stretches to get your shoulder moving again in harmony with your scapula.
Range-of-motion exercises. You will learn exercises and stretches to help your shoulder and shoulder blade move properly, so you can return to reaching and lifting without pain.
Strengthening exercises. Your physical therapist will determine which strengthening exercises are right for you, depending on your specific condition. You may use weights, medicine balls, resistance bands, and other types of resistance training to challenge your weaker muscles. You will receive a home-exercise program to continue rotator cuff and scapular strengthening, long after you have completed your formal physical therapy.
Patient education. Posture education is an important part of rehabilitation. For example, when your shoulders roll forward as you lean over a computer, the tendons in the front of the shoulder can become pinched. Your physical therapist may suggest adjustments to your workstation and work habits.
Functional training. As your symptoms improve, your physical therapist will help you return to your previous level of function that may include household chores, job duties and sports- related activities. Functional training can include working on lifting a glass into a cupboard or throwing a ball using proper shoulder mechanics. You and your physical therapist will decide what your goals are, and get you back to your prior level of functioning as soon as possible.
Can this Injury or Condition be Prevented?
Rotator cuff tendinitis can be prevented by:
- Maintaining proper shoulder and spinal posture during daily activities, including sitting at a computer.
- Performing daily stretches to the shoulder and upper back to maintain normal movement. Tightness in the upper back, or a rounded shoulder posture will decrease the ability to move your torso, and that makes the shoulder have to work harder to perform everyday activities, such as reaching for objects.
- Keeping your upper body strong, including the upper back and shoulder-blade muscles will help prevent tendinitis. Many people work the muscles in their chest, arms, and shoulders, but it is also important to work the muscles around the shoulder blade and upper back. These muscles provide a strong foundation for your shoulder function. Without a strong foundation, muscle imbalances occur and put the shoulder at risk for injury.
Real Life Experiences
Mary is a 51-year-old piano teacher with 14 students. She teaches 3 days a week; each session lasts 30 minutes. Mary also plays piano for her church, and for her own enjoyment. A few weeks ago, she began to feel pain in her left shoulder when reaching her arm overhead or behind her body. Her symptoms worsened, and she began experiencing pain even when at rest. Now the pain is so severe, it wakes her up at night; she can no longer sleep on her left side. She contacts her physical therapist.
Mary's physical therapist performs a full evaluation of her shoulder, and her scapula and upper-back strength and mobility. Mary describes how long she sits at the piano each week. Her therapist gently feels all around her shoulder and finds that it is very tender over the rotator cuff region. She has pain when her therapist performs resistive-muscle testing to the rotator cuff. He also discovers that Mary has tightness in her upper back region that limits her ability to fully twist her body to the right and left. Special tests were performed on her shoulder, and the results indicate the rotator cuff is irritated. Based on these findings, he diagnoses rotator cuff tendinitis.
Mary and her physical therapist work together to establish short- and long-term goals for her treatment. He prescribes ice to help decrease her pain, and teaches her some gentle movement and strengthening exercises. He also shows Mary how to improve her posture when sitting at the piano, and teaches her a home-exercise program of stretching, strengthening, and postural exercises, which he modifies throughout the course of her therapy as her condition improves.
Mary and her physical therapist work together in a 6-week program of 2-3 rehabilitation sessions per week. He performs gentle passive movements of her shoulder, scapula, and upper back to increase her joint motion. Mary learns proper movement patterns for reaching her arm overhead. She finds that using a therapeutic chair helps improve her posture and strengthens her core during her piano lessons.
After a few weeks of diligent therapy sessions and working with her home-exercise program, Mary notices she is able to sleep on her left side again without pain, and can easily reach to get a mug from her upper kitchen shelf.
Mary is soon able to return to all of her daily activities and enjoy her life as a piano teacher—free of pain.
What Kind of Physical Therapist Do I Need?
All physical therapists are prepared through education and experience to treat rotator cuff tendinitis. However, you may want to consider:
- A physical therapist who is experienced in treating people with rotator cuff tendinitis. Some physical therapists have a practice with an orthopedic or musculoskeletal focus.
- A physical therapist who is a board-certified clinical specialist or who completed a residency or fellowship in orthopedic or sports physical therapy. This therapist has advanced knowledge, experience, and skills that may apply to your condition.
You can find physical therapists who have these and other credentials by using Find a PT, the online tool built by the American Physical Therapy Association to help you search for physical therapists with specific clinical expertise in your geographic area.
General tips when you are looking for a physical therapist (or any other health care provider):
- Get recommendations from family and friends or from other health care providers.
- When you contact a physical therapy clinic for an appointment, ask about the physical therapists' experience in helping people who have rotator cuff tendinitis. During your first visit with the physical therapist, be prepared to describe your symptoms in as much detail as possible, and say what makes your symptoms worse.
The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) believes that consumers should have access to information that could help them make health care decisions and also prepare them for their visit with their health care provider.
The following articles provide some of the best scientific evidence related to physical therapy treatment of rotator cuff tendinitis. The articles report recent research and give an overview of the standards of practice both in the United States and internationally. The article titles are linked either to a PubMed* abstract of the article or to free full text, so that you can read it or print out a copy to bring with you to your health care provider.
Thornton AL, McCarty CW, Burgess MJ. Effectiveness of low-level laser therapy combined with an exercise program to reduce pain and increase function in adults with shoulder pain: a critically appraised topic. J Sport Rehabil. 2013;22(1):72-78. Article Summary on PubMed.
Childress MA, Beutler A. Management of chronic tendon injuries. Am Fam Physician. 2013;87(7):486-490. Article Summary on PubMed.
Scott A, Docking S, Vicenzino B, et al. Sports and exercise-related tendinopathies: a review of selected topical issues by participants of the second International Scientific Tendinopathy Symposium (ISTS) Vancouver 2012 [erratum in: Br J Sports Med. 2013;47(12):744]. Br J Sports Med. 2013;47(9):536-544. Free Article.
Littlewood C, Ashton J, Chance-Larsen K, et al. Exercise for rotator cuff tendinopathy: a systematic review. Physiotherapy. 2012;98(2):101-109. Article Summary on PubMed.
Andres BM, Murrell GA. Treatment of tendinopathy: what works, what does not, and what is on the horizon. Clin Orthop Relat Res. 2008;466(7): 1539–1554. Free Article.
Senbursa G, Galtaci G, Atay A. Comparison of conservative treatment with and without manual physical therapy for patients with shoulder impingement syndrome: a prospective, randomized clincial trial. Knee Surg Sports Traumatol Arthrosc. 2007;15(7):915-921. Article Summary on PubMed.
*PubMed is a free online resource developed by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). PubMed contains millions of citations to biomedical literature, including citations in the National Library of Medicine’s MEDLINE database.
Authored by Julie A. Mulcahy, PT, MPT. Reviewed by the MoveForwardPT.com editorial board.