One of the most common causes of shoulder pain and stiffness is a rotator cuff tear. Studies show that 20 to 30 percent of people between the ages of 60 and 80 have a tear, and more than 60 percent of people over the age of 60 will have a tear that has no pain symptoms. Those numbers are astounding! Most people will seek surgery as treatment; about 250,000 rotator cuff repairs are performed each year in the U.S.

Recovery from surgery is not easy and can be very painful. Patients can expect a four- to six-month recovery period that involves physical therapy to restore normal range of motion and a return to activities. Often, patients in the work force will need to plan time off from work duties immediately following surgery. So what other treatments are available for a rotator cuff tear?

Physical therapy has been shown to reduce pain and restore function in patients with rotator cuff tears. Recent studies indicate that 72 to 75 percent of people that chose conservative management, including physical therapy, instead of surgery, were able to resolve pain and continue activities of daily living without difficulty. That’s great news!

So what can a person expect from physical therapy to treat a rotator cuff tear? First, let’s look at the function of the rotator cuff. The rotator cuff is made up of four small muscles that surround the shoulder and help move the arm. Without the help of these muscles, the shoulder joint does not move correctly and can damage the tissues in the joint. This damage creates pain, inflammation, loss of motion and muscle weakness. Physical therapy creates a program aimed at alleviating pain, reducing inflammation, and restoring the motion and strength needed for daily activities. All programs include a prescribed exercise program specific to each patient’s weaknesses and mobility loss, and patient education on managing symptoms at home. Other treatments such as manual techniques or ice/heat may also be needed to help achieve the goal of resuming all activities without difficulty.