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Rotator Cuff Injury: Care Instructions

Rotator cuff around top of arm bone at shoulder, with close-up of rotator cuff tendons and muscles.

Overview

The rotator cuff is a group of tendons and muscles around the shoulder that support the shoulder. It keeps the shoulder joint stable and allows you to raise and rotate your arm.

Issues with the rotator cuff can be caused by an injury to the shoulder (a fall, or a direct blow to the shoulder area) or with degeneration or wear with age/over time.

Treatment can depend on your symptoms and the type of injury to your rotator cuff. Your doctor may have you try physiotherapy and exercise first. If physiotherapy does not help, your doctor may recommend injections, imaging, or possibly surgery.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

How can you care for yourself at home?

  • It is important to keep the shoulder moving to help heal and avoid getting a stiff shoulder. It is best to not use a sling with a rotator cuff injury if possible.
    • You can do gentle pendulum motions by leaning forward and letting the arm hang and gently swing in small circles or back and forth.
    • Do gentle stretching exercises often throughout the day to keep moving. These exercises should not be painful, but you will feel a stretch while doing them. Stop if the stretch causes pain.
  • Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.
    • If the doctor gave you a prescription medicine for pain, take it as prescribed.
    • If you are not taking a prescription pain medicine, ask your doctor if you can take an over-the-counter medicine.
  • Put ice or a cold pack on your shoulder for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. Try to do this every 1 to 2 hours for the next 3 days (when you are awake). Put a thin cloth between the ice pack and your skin.
  • After 2 or 3 days, if you don't have swelling, apply heat. Put a warm water bottle, a heating pad set on low, or a warm cloth on your shoulder. Do not go to sleep with a heating pad on your skin. Put a thin cloth between the heating pad and your skin.
  • Do not do anything that makes your pain worse.
  • Follow your doctor's advice about whether you need physiotherapy.

When should you call for help?

Call your doctor or nurse call line now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have severe pain.
  • You cannot move your shoulder or arm.
  • You have tingling or numbness in your arm or hand.
  • Your arm or hand is cool or pale.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor or nurse call line if:

  • Your pain gets worse.
  • You have new or worse swelling in your arm or hand.
  • You do not get better as expected.

Where can you learn more?

Go to https://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

Enter D027 in the search box to learn more about "Rotator Cuff Injury: Care Instructions".

Adapted with permission from copyrighted materials from Healthwise, Incorporated (Healthwise). This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any warranty and is not responsible or liable for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.