Easing Arm and Shoulder Pain From a Rotator Cuff Injury
At least one person in 10 over age 60 experiences pain, disability and a diminished quality of life because of damaged tissues in the rotator cuff. The pain typically localizes in the upper arm, so those affected may not even realize that the problem emanates from the shoulder.
But for those who do hurt, ordinary activities like throwing a ball, sweeping the walk, raking leaves, fastening a seatbelt, even slicing bread or meat can be a challenge. Pushing the arm forward or moving it backward, for example, when trying to put the arm in a sleeve or hook a bra can be especially painful. Likewise, in my case, lifting a heavy item out of the refrigerator or swimming freestyle — stroking with my right arm while turning my head to the left to breathe — can produce stabbing pain in my upper right arm.
Given that — as my doctor put it — I “don’t pitch for the Yankees,” physical therapy, not surgery, is the recommended route to relief for me and for most other people with painful rotator cuff injuries. So with the M.R.I. revealing the extent of my injury, I consulted Marilyn Moffat, professor of physical therapy at New York University, a trusted source of advice who has often prescribed helpful conservative therapy for me and many others over the years.
Dr. Moffat’s first words were, “Don’t do anything that hurts” — lest it increase the inflammation and worsen the injury. Continuing to stress torn tissues in the rotator cuff will only increase the tears and delay recovery.
Dr. Moffat also cautioned me against blindly following rotator cuff exercises posted on the internet “that may not be appropriate at the point you’re at.” Although many suggested exercises can be helpful, she said, if some are attempted before the shoulder is prepared to handle the stress, they can make matters worse.
The therapeutic sequence she recommended starts with rest to calm inflammation while eliminating aggravating activities, to be followed by strengthening the muscles and then stretching to increase range of motion of the injured joint.