Understanding the Two Types of Rotator Cuff Tears

Understanding the Two Types of Rotator Cuff Tears

Each year in the United States, about 2 million people seek medical care for tears in their rotator cuff, a group of muscles and tendons that support shoulder function and stability. Rotator cuff tears can vary in their severity, but most cause pain and other problems when you move your shoulder or raise your arm.

Patients in Sugar Land and Houston, Texas, can find relief for rotator cuff pain by visiting J. Michael Bennett, MD, PA, a leading provider of shoulder pain treatment, including advanced therapies for pain involving the rotator cuff. Although rotator cuff pain is common, all injuries are not the same. Here’s what you should know about rotator cuff problems, including the two types of rotator cuff tears.

Rotator cuff: Basic anatomy

Your shoulder is made up of three bones — the upper arm bone or humerus; the collarbone or clavicle; and the scapula, or shoulder bone. The upper end of the humerus is rounded like a ball, and it fits snugly inside a cup-shaped socket in the shoulder bone. This type of joint is called a ball-and-socket joint, and when you move your shoulder, the ball rotates inside the hollowed-out socket.

Of course, the ball doesn't stay inside the socket by itself. The rotator cuff muscles and tendons help hold the joint together, while also supporting your arm when you raise it, rotate it, or move it in another way. The cuff comprises four muscles that come together as tough tendons, which in turn attach to the shoulder joint bones. When you have a rotator cuff tear, it’s the tendons that are torn.

Between the muscles and bones at the top of the joint, there’s a small sac called a bursa. Filled with fluid, the bursa forms a cushion between the bones and muscles and helps your shoulder joint glide smoothly. When you tear or injure your rotator cuff, it’s not uncommon to injure the bursa, too.

How rotator cuff tears happen

Most rotator cuff tears happen as a result of tendon degeneration from years of wear and tear. If you use your shoulders a lot for repetitive movements, like lifting, reaching, or throwing, these wear-and-tear injuries can happen more quickly.

Other times, the rotator cuff can be injured during a traumatic event, like a fall or a car accident. Most often, injuries occur when you call on your outstretched arm.

Two types of rotator cuff tears

Those are the two most common ways injuries occur — through wear and tear or falls. But there are also two primary types of rotator cuff injuries: partial tears and complete or full-thickness tears. The type of tear determines which treatment you’ll need to relieve pain and restore normal shoulder function.

Partial rotator cuff tears

In a partial tear (or a partial-thickness tear), the tendon is torn partway through. That means that the tendon is still attached to the bone, although it will be weakened. Symptoms include pain and some shoulder instability, along with decreased range of motion in the joint.

Complete (or full-thickness) rotator cuff tears

A complete or full-thickness tear is much more severe. In this type of tear, the tendon is completely detached (torn away) from the bone, either fully (a full-thickness complete tear) or partly (a full-thickness incomplete tear). Not surprisingly, full-thickness tears involve more severe pain, along with severely limited shoulder function.

Rotator cuff tear treatment

Treatment for rotator cuff injuries depends on several factors. Whether you have a full- or partial-thickness tear plays a key role, but so does your age and your activity level — how much you use your shoulders.

Dr. Bennett tailors every treatment program based on each person’s unique factors. Most treatment plans involve one or more of these approaches:

If these options don’t help, if you have a very severe tear, or if you use your shoulders a lot, Dr. Bennett may recommend surgery to reattach the tendon to the bone.

Relief for your painful shoulders

Rotator cuff injuries are just one possible cause of shoulder pain. To find out what’s causing your shoulder symptoms — and how to relieve them — book an appointment online or over the phone with Dr. Bennett today.

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