You’ve been doing Olympic lifting for a while.
Or stocking tall shelves. Or cheerleading, throwing your partners overhead.
Everything was great! Until suddenly, it wasn’t. Ice and ibuprofen didn’t quite
do the trick, so you visited the doctor. And lo and behold, you’ve got a
rotator cuff injury and two questions:

How the heck did this happen?


What on earth do I do now?

You and your shoulder: it’s

Dem bones

Despite it all falling under one general name,
the “shoulder” actually consists of four (or maybe
five) different joints. The sternoclavicular joint is where your collar bone
connects to your breastbone. The acromioclavicular joint (which even doctors
just call the AC joint, because nobody has time for all that) is where the very
top of your shoulder blade connects to the far end of your collarbone. The
glenohumeral joint is where the ball of your humerus fits into the bowl of your
shoulder blade. And then there is another joint (or maybe two, depending on who
you ask) that is a “false joint” as well.

The meat of the matter

Into this complicated mechanical mess go a host of muscles. There are chest muscles
that move the shoulder. There are back muscles that move the shoulder. And
there are even muscles of the arm that help move the shoulder, even though that
sounds weirdly like trying to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.

But not everything is about movement, which is
why you have a rotator cuff. These are the muscles that keep
your shoulder stable. These four muscles (Yes, four. I told you it was complicated.) include supraspinatus, infraspinatus,
subscapularis, and teres minor. If you feel like those all
sound like fun spells you might learn at Hogwarts, you’re not alone. If they
all sound very sensible to you, optime
Write your high school Latin teacher a thank-you note. These four
muscles keep your arm from dislocating when you lift it over your head or move
it around. Which is kind of magical, if you think about it.

How rotator cuff injuries develop

If you are building strength in the muscles
that lift and move your arms at the shoulder, this allows you to lift more. But
when this is done in a way that is too fast, or with poor technique, or when already
tired, or without a corresponding amount of attention given to strengthening
the stabilizers of the shoulder, this
puts a lot of extra stress on those rotator cuff muscles. This can cause them to fail in their job, allowing the
shoulder capsule to stretch (not good), the head of the humerus to start to
migrate out of its spot in the shoulder (kind of bad), or the muscles of the
shoulder literally shearing off from their bony
attachment (DEFINITELY bad). Other injuries caused by overloaded rotator cuff
muscles include tendonitis and nerve impingement. Ouch!

So… I messed up my shoulder.

Go see your doctor

For real. Ice and ibuprofen will get you some
relief, but as mentioned earlier, shoulders are incredibly complicated. The
chances of your being able to accurately self-diagnose your specific problem as a layperson are slim to none. And if you’ve got a serious tear going on, waiting to have it
repaired will only lead to further degradation of the joint. If you don’t have
arthritis yet, that’s like begging for it to start. Nobody’s excited about a
trip to see their physician, but that’s what adults do. Sorry!

Okay, okay. But then what?

It totally depends on what kind of injury you
have going on. It might be the sort of thing that taking a break from Crossfit
for a while can fix. You might need injections. You might need surgery. There
will probably be physical therapy involved, to strengthen your shoulder
stabilizers and correct any outsized range of motion you’ve developed from
lifting/gymnastics/swimming/pitching/etc. But regardless, you’ll need to be
more mindful of how you use (and abuse) your shoulders in the future.

Actually, it turns out my
shoulder is fine. But how can I prevent rotator cuff injuries in the future?

Get serious about form

Yes, if you work out, it’s fun to see if you
can do things as quickly as possible (I’m looking at you, Crossfitters), but that’s also the fastest
path towards injury. Working with a trainer or coach and really nailing down
the details of form before increasing the intensity and speed of your exercise
will help keep your shoulders working properly.

If you don’t really need to be
reaching overhead, don’t do it

Climb up on a stool when you’re pulling down
boxes in the garage. Get a good stepladder when you’re painting your dining
room. Reaching overhead is the toughest movement on your shoulder muscles,
and adding weight or resistance to that only increases the strain. It only
takes a minute to be kinder to your poor shoulder joint.

If you’re working out your arms,
make sure to address your shoulder stabilizers too 

Working with a personal trainer (or, if you’re
already experiencing problems, a physical therapist) can help you get on the
right track with a routine to gradually build up more stability in your

Can massage help with rotator
cuff injuries?

Well, it’s not going to magically fix your shoulder.

BUT, there is a small but growing body of research that shows massage can help with
shoulder pain,
especially in conjunction with physical therapy. So if you’re already
recovering from your injury, getting a massage can help you to feel better
while you regain your range of motion and strength.

If you’re an athlete or work in a field
requiring a large amount of physical labor, it’s also natural to feel some
degree of anxiety about being injured. This is an area where massage really shines, helping you relax and cope with
the stress that comes along with injury.

How do I find a good massage
therapist to help me with my shoulder?

Good news: you’ve already found one. Click here to schedule your next appointment, or contact us with questions.