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So, what does your rotator cuff have to do with driving? Let’s say you’re driving in your car and you hear a funny sound. That’s never a good thing—often, it’s a reminder that you need to check up on your vehicle! When you hear a funny sound in your shoulder, that can be a sign that you may have a problem to check out, too. You may need to rescue your rotator cuff.

Whether it’s your car or your body, you want to investigate and fix the underlying problem!

Do I have a rotator cuff injury?

So, let’s talk about identifying a rotator cuff injury. First of all, you may hear that popping or clicking noise. That’s a good reason to start investigating whether you have a rotator cuff injury. There shouldn’t be any noise in your shoulders.

But remember, just like with your car, some problems are silent. You may feel a deep shoulder ache when you lie on your shoulder or put pressure on it. It may feel like an ache that doesn’t seem to go away.

Or maybe your arm feels weak and not able to work as well as it should. Another sign is when you have difficulty raising your hands above your shoulders. Think about washing your hair, reaching up to a high cabinet, or shooting a basketball. If these activities hurt, you may have a rotator cuff injury.

For example, my client, Amy, knew she had a rotator cuff tear because she couldn’t lift her arms past shoulder level. She was fortunate her tear was mild. We worked together in training and treatment and Amy was able to regain full function. If your shoulders hurt, don’t settle for daily pain and limited motion in your shoulders!

Causes Of Rotator Cuff Injury

There are several causes that can contribute to a rotator cuff injury.

1. Poor posture

If you are a client of mine, if you watch my YouTube videos, or are gracious enough to read my blog as you are doing now, you will hear me talk a lot about posture. Poor posture is one cause of rotator cuff pain. To understand that better, you need a little anatomy lesson. Let’s start with your bursa. Your bursa covers the top of your humerus (arm bone) and protects your tendons from compression when you raise your arm. When your posture slips, and you find yourself “falling forward” and out of alignment, you put compression on the bursa and the tendons. That can damage those tissues.

Your shoulder joint is also abnormally stressed when you carry your shoulders high, holding tension in your neck and shoulder muscles. Habitual positions in poor alignment create muscle imbalances around your shoulder joint, which cause undue wear and tear. Whether it’s happening at work, at rest, or during daily activity, it’s something to look out for.

A gif showing the anatomy of the rotator cuff muscles

Physical Therapist, Bonnie Yost, Showing Rotator Cuff Physiology

 2. Straining and Overuse

If you find yourself straining, like leaning over a drawing, or computer, or a head of hair as a stylist, that posture can contribute to these kinds of injuries. Your shoulder can bear a lot of work, but sometimes we push too hard. Then, your rotator cuff pain may stem from overuse. If you’re painting, roofing, or working overhead a lot, you may not have the right work-rest balance for your shoulder muscles. I know you need your shoulders for work, but there is a right way and a wrong way to use them.

I’ve had many men who are working in construction that have generally injured their rotator cuffs because they’re consistently working with poor biomechanics. They would raise their shoulders to lift their arms. For proper muscle balance and joint alignment, we want to be able to drop our shoulders as we raise our arms. Like your car tires, your shoulders can be worn down and your muscles can be strained by overuse and poor alignment!

3. Poor Length and Strength Balance

As I mentioned before, sometimes rotator cuff pain is an issue of poor length/strength balance. This means you want to strengthen weak muscles and tone down those shoulder muscles that are over-working. It’s like how your spark plugs need to work and coordinate firing. Your shoulder muscles need to work in harmony, too, like a team!

Bad postural and movement habits cause some muscles to overwork and other muscles to fail to do their job. How you move and exercise is much more important than what you do. Learning to control, sequence, and balance muscle power as you move, work, and exercise is critical for smooth joint function, muscle length, and strength balance.

4. Injury

Sometimes, your rotator cuff injury stems from a specific incident, like a fall. As painful as that is, it is easier to recognize that something is really wrong. When your shoulder goes from fine to FIRE, you know it’s time to rescue your rotator cuff. As Mayo Clinic points out, you should see a doctor soon after these incidents to determine what plan of care is best for you and your condition.

In my case, a rotator cuff injury called for surgery in addition to training. When I was younger, I was throwing some hay when my right hand became tangled in the twine. I tore my right shoulder rotator cuff. For several months, I tried to be a good physical therapist and fix it with ice and exercise, but that gnawing pain continued. I was having trouble gaining full range of motion in my shoulder.

Eventually, I ended up with surgery that used four anchors to repair the large tear. I incorporated physical therapy treatment with being mindful of my biomechanics. After my surgery, I was consistent with ice, posture, and careful, progressive movement over the next six months. I was able to regain full shoulder motion, with no pain. And I have maintained that for the last twenty years!

Exercises To Strengthen Shoulder Muscles

So how do we get to the root of this injury and fix it?

1. The Grateful Grab and Your Posture

There it is again! It’s important to always be mindful of your posture. Be sure to keep your chin level and your shoulders dropped. After all, muscle tightness can compress our shoulder joints and irritate tissues.

When I’m treating a shoulder injury I always like to look at posture and rotator cuff function first, to check for joint alignment and any muscle imbalance around the joint.

Check your standing posture right now. Are your ears aligned with the point of your shoulder, and shoulders over your pelvis? Excellent!

Now, try reaching one hand up, behind your head, with palm toward your back as you reach down, as shown below. Reach your opposite hand down, behind your waist and up your back, with the back of your hand on your back, to meet the other finger tips. Do your fingertips touch? Don’t pull your hands together! Just try to touch using only muscle strength—no towels, ropes, or outside force. Now, switch arms; often, it’s easier to reach both ways with our dominant hand!

A gif of a shoulder exercise to diagnose rotator cuff injuries

Physical Therapist, Bonnie Yost, Showing Grateful Grab Stretch

After surgery, I could hardly get my hand behind my low back because of this injury. With time and consistency, I regained full rotator cuff strength, balance, and motion. I still need to check it monthly and practice a bit more if this exercise becomes harder to do. It’s certainly something to work at, and a great way to assess your shoulder mobility.

2. Snow Angel

Next, I’d like you to try the Snow Angel exercise. Start by lying on your back on the floor, with a towel rolled under your back at the waist. Your shoulders, ribcage, and the base of your skull should be touching the floor, and your arms should be at your sides, palms up.

Now try slowly raising your arms over your head, keeping your whole arm on the floor. How high can you raise your arms? Try to get your straight arms—still in full contact with the floor—to touch your ears, if you can! Remember, keep your back pushed into the rolled towel and your rib cage fully on the floor. Don’t let your shoulders rise up (climb in your ears), no matter how tempting it is!

Then, pull your shoulders down and, keeping your straight arms in contact with the floor, slowly slide your arms back down to your sides. You’ve made a snow angel (or beach angel), no matter the weather—and you’ve practiced strengthening and balancing your shoulder muscles!

3. Rock n Roll

Once you’ve finished, do a little “rock and roll.” This exercise helps your shoulders relax at work, after exercise or stretching, and as a stress relief break. Extend your arm and rotate your thumb in and out while keeping a straight elbow. Start with little motions and work to rotating your thumbs in and out as far as possible. There you go, you rock!

Encouragement for Today and Everyday

When life gets tough—and pain certainly is no picnic—you can think of Isaiah 46:4: “I will be your God, throughout your lifetime, until your hair is white with age. I made you, and I will care for you. I will carry you along and save you.”

And here is my prayer for you: Almighty three-in-one Creator God, thank You that You are faithful in all Your promises. You created human beings to live a life full of potential, purpose, joy and fulfillment. But we can only see that wonderful life when we’re connected, and close to You, in thought, in word, and in deed. Thank you, Lord, that You don’t expect us to be perfect but help us recognize our need for You. Please, Lord, forgive us in our weakness and help us to turn to You in our pain, our joy, and in every life situation. Thank you, Lord Jesus, that we can trust You to know everything, to provide completely, to get us through every moment in Your perfect care. Help us to experience rest, pain relief, and joy, as we trust You beyond our own understanding, our own abilities, our own expectations. It’s in Your mighty name, Lord Jesus, we pray. Amen.

May you rest in God’s peace and be encouraged to stretch and strengthen as you learn to rescue your rotator cuff. Keep your body and soul tuned up and ready to go!