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Can Rotator Cuff Injuries Heal on their Own?

A common question I hear from patients at least a few times a week is, “Can my rotator cuff tear be treated without surgery?” It’s a simple question with a not-so-simple answer…

Symptoms of a rotator cuff tear can be managed non-surgically with an ongoing course of anti-inflammatories (i.e., ibuprofen, naproxen, aspirin), cortisone injections and a good dose of physical therapy; however, this approach will not totally fix the problem. If you are suffering from tendonitis or have a partial rotator cuff tear and your goal is pain relief, a non-surgical approach may work for you, as good function can sometimes be achieved without surgery.

However, if you are active – meaning you play sports, regularly exercise or use your shoulder regularly in your work and/or hobbies, then surgery is recommended. There is NO empirical data showing that rotator cuff tears completely heal on their own.

The bottom line is that your rotator cuff is critical to your overall shoulder function and you should talk to your orthopedic surgeon about the best option for you. However, it’s important to note that research continues to demonstrate negative long-term effects associated with rotator cuff injuries, including muscle scaring, muscle shrinkage/atrophy and increased tendon stiffness. Unfortunately, these negative effects are irreversible and can lead to permanent loss of shoulder function. So, the goals of rotator cuff treatment are simple:

  • Alleviate pain
  • Maximize function
  • Intervene before irreversible changes occur

Early surgical intervention is key, especially if you have a full rotator cuff tear, as the smaller the tear, the easier to repair, which will lead to better outcomes.

Whether you undergo rotator cuff surgery or opt for non-surgical treatment, physical therapy plays a key role in ensuring successful recovery. Rotator cuff strengthening exercises found here can help you regain strength and improve overall function in the shoulder. While you can do these at home, it is important to note that these exercises should not be used as a substitute for regular physical therapy visits and guidance from your physician.

Dr. Matthew Boes is a fellowship trained orthopaedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine. He serves as team physician for the NC State University football team. His areas of expertise include sports medicine, shoulder arthroscopy, knee arthroscopy and reconstructive surgery of the shoulder, elbow and knee. For more information on Dr. Boes click here.

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