Can A Rotator Cuff Heal Itself?

Can A Rotator Cuff Heal Itself?


If you’ve torn your rotator cuff, you know how painful and debilitating it is. 

Unfortunately, rotator cuff tears may not always heal on their own without surgery. 

The healing time for minor tears depends on the individual. 

However, there are things you can do to speed up healing, decrease pain, restore range of motion, and improve shoulder function. 


What is a Rotator Cuff Tear?

A torn rotator cuff means that one or more of the tendons connecting the arm to the shoulder have become detached. Depending on the severity of the injury, the tendon(s) may be partially or completely detached from the top of the humerus (upper arm bone).

What are the types of rotator cuff tears? 

Partial tear - The tendon is still attached to the bone. 

Full thickness tear -  When basically all of the tendon is detached from the bone. In some cases, there could still be a slight attachment. 

Degenerative tear - Gradual detachment of the tendons over time due to use or other underlying health conditions. 

How common are rotator cuff tears?

Nearly two million people in the US experience rotator cuff tears every year. While they’re most commonly associated with athletes, anyone can suffer from this injury. 

Most acute rotator cuff tears in young people occur due to injury. Most rotator cuff injuries in people over 40 are overuse injuries partially due to decreased muscle tone and lower collagen concentrations in the body.



What are the Symptoms of a Rotator Cuff Tear?

Without a healthy rotator cuff, it’s difficult to lift or rotate the affected arm. Torn rotator cuffs result in pain and weakness in the shoulder. 

In an overuse-related rotator cuff tear, the tear may develop slowly over time. Pain may only occur when the affected arm is lifted or rotated above the shoulder. The amount of pain depends on the severity of the damage and on how quickly it was done.

The pain may be constant, especially if one sleeps on the side of the tear or overuses that arm. Rotator cuff tears don’t always manifest in pain. Sometimes they don’t hurt at all, but patients may still feel weakness and impaired range of motion in their arms.


What Causes Rotator Cuff Tears?

The tendon most commonly injured in rotator cuff accidents is the supraspinatus tendon. It can be caused by lifting a heavy object or it can be caused by overuse or by repetitive motions. It is most common in people over 40.

Both partial and full-thickness tears could be acute (due to an injury), or degenerative (overuse). Degenerative rotator cuff tears are actually more common, and relatively painless aside from when the arm is lifted. 

Factors that contribute to degenerative rotator cuff tears include repetitive motion sports such as tennis, baseball, weightlifting, and rowing. Certain occupations like window cleaning can also cause long-term shoulder damage.

Another important factor in degenerative rotator cuff tears is poor blood supply to the area. This may occur due to aging, and inhibits the body’s ability to repair tendon damage. Loss of collagen production due to aging can also weaken the tendons and muscles.

Degenerative rotator cuff damage often begins with the tendon fibers starting to fray over time. If the situation is not treated and the damage progresses, eventually the tendon could detach completely.  

Rotator cuff tears are more common in the dominant arm. If you experience a tear in one rotator cuff that is not due to injury, there’s a greater likelihood of damage to the other one as well.



How Are Rotator Cuff Tears Diagnosed?

Your doctor will closely examine your entire shoulder where the humerus (your upper arm bone), the clavicle (your collarbone), and your scapula (your shoulder blade) meet. 

The head of the humerus is tucked into the ball-and-socket joint at the shoulder. It is held in place by a group of four muscles and tendons that form the rotator cuff.

The examination will also involve the bursa, which is a lubricating sac positioned between the rotator cuff and the acromion process, or the top of the shoulder. This lubricating sac allows for free movement of the arm. If the rotator cuff is torn, the bursa may also be damaged.

Your doctor will check for tenderness, deformity, range of motion, arm strength, and pain. 

After a physical examination, the doctor will order imaging tests, including X-rays MRIs, or ultrasounds. X-rays don’t show soft tissue damage, but can rule out other causes of shoulder pain and weakness. MRIs and ultrasounds show soft tissue damage to show the size and location of the tear(s).

For the purposes of rehabilitation, an MRI or ultrasound will also show the strength of the rotator cuff muscles. The weaker they are, the more likely it is that the condition has been chronic for some time.



Treatment Options for Rotator Cuff Tears 

It is important to speak to a doctor about shoulder pain to keep symptoms from getting worse. It is also important to avoid using the injured arm if there is pain, because it could cause even more damage to the already compromised tendons.

Major rotator cuff tears will require surgery, followed by physical therapy.

Non-surgical treatments can work for most patients. Minor tears may be treated with the following:

  • Physical therapy
  • Ultrasound therapy
  • Light therapy
  • Rest
  • OTC pain relievers, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) 
  • Avoiding motions that cause pain
  • Strength training to improve muscle balance
  • Steroid injections (as prescribed from a doctor)

While they’re often effective, pain relievers do not necessarily promote healing. In some cases, masking pain may also encourage a continuation of the activities that caused the tear in the first place.

Patients who are meticulous about following doctor’s orders in taking care of the shoulder may enjoy healing within 4-6 weeks. However, masking the pain with pain relievers and ignoring the need to rest and recover often results in worse injury.

Tendons can also be reattached with surgery, restoring most or all functionality. This is a more permanent solution that may be necessary if pain persists for more than 6 months, if the tear is large, if the tear was caused by an acute injury, or if significant arm functioning is lost.



Red Light Therapy for Faster Healing

Red light therapy could offer a valuable addition to doctor-prescribed treatment for a torn rotator cuff.

If your shoulder requires surgery, red light can help accelerate healing. In one study, 38 patients who had undergone arthroscopic surgery for medium-sized rotator cuff tears were treated for 30 minutes twice a day starting one week after surgery and continuing for 5 weeks.

After 5 weeks, the treatment group showed lower pain scores and greater range of motion. The researchers suggest that the pain relief offered by red light therapy could support rehabilitation by encouraging a greater range of motion.

Red light therapy could be used to relieve pain and help restore function of minor tears.

A 2022 study observed 75 patients ages 45-70 with rotator cuff tears. This study divided patients into different groups for the following treatments.

  • Red light therapy 
  • Ultrasound
  • Infrared light
  • A combination of ultrasound and visible red light therapy.
  • A combination of ultrasound and invisible red light therapy.  

The treatments lasted for 12 sessions over 4 weeks. The group receiving red light therapy along with ultrasound had superior pain relief scores, improved range of motion, and improved muscle strength.

A medical practitioner is not required to administer red light therapy. It’s something you can do in the comfort of your home using a powerful medical-grade device such as the BIOMAX 600, to support whatever treatment protocol your doctor recommends.

The BIOMAX panels offer a variety of setup options with different stands and mounts.

The panels can also be used to improve muscle recovery, treat neuropathy, relieve pain including arthritis joint pain, and can help users lose weight

Discover the many uses for red light therapy in the Learning Center

Check out the BIOMAX panels to see which one is right for you.




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