Rotator cuff disease is a progressive, quality-of-life-diminishing problem that can cause chronic, debilitating pain, mobility limitations and in severe cases, complete loss of shoulder function in people affected by it. Modern advances in treatment show promise for patients not only in helping to halt the progression of rotator cuff disease, but also in aiding the regeneration of strong and healthy new tissue to reinforce the shoulder joint’s strength.

To adequately explain the extent and severity of rotator cuff disease, it is crucial first to give a bit of an anatomy overview. The rotator cuff involves a set of four tendons located in the shoulder joint. These tendons are responsible for making the shoulder joint stable, and they connect to four muscles that work in tandem to move the shoulder in a variety of directions.

The term rotator cuff disease refers to any damage to the rotator cuff, no matter the cause. It is a condition that often presents in athletes or anyone else who performs a lot of repetitive motion with the arms. Such activities can include weight-lifting, tennis, throwing sports like baseball, softball and football, swimming and any work that requires similar movements – especially in stockroom or warehouse workers as well as airport baggage handlers. Damage to the rotator cuff can also be the result of a traumatic injury like a hard fall or other blunt force trauma.

Like many other musculoskeletal concerns, the severity of rotator cuff injuries can range from mild strains to complete tears. Depending on how extensive the damage is, the person who is experiencing an injury to the rotator cuff can feel anything from mild discomfort to severe pain that results in the loss of shoulder joint function. Another consideration in rotator cuff injury is tendinosis. It means that the internal tendons of the rotator cuff are degenerating or breaking down – either from injury or overuse or a general decrease in the healing response of the tissue. Unfortunately, rotator cuff tendinosis can seem minor at first, but can eventually result in partial or full rotator cuff tears. Also, up to 80 percent of small tears over time tend to increase in size within two years of initial injury onset.

The treatment of rotator cuff disease largely depends on the severity of the injury. Minor strains can often be treated conservatively with a regimen of ice, rest, over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications and physical therapy.  More extensive rotator cuff injury can necessitate surgery to repair it. A skilled surgeon can accomplish surgical repair of rotator cuff tears via a minimally invasive approach. Unfortunately, the post-surgical recovery is challenging and often takes 6 months to 1 year to completely heal, even in small tears.

However, there are promising regenerative medicine approaches that are now available to help address the some of these concerns. In patients with significant partial tears that are very painful, an implanted “patch” that is specially designed to stimulate your body’s cells to disrupt the progression of rotator cuff disease, promote healing and support growth of new and robust tendon-like tissue and be used.  In fact, results from initial multi-center studies are encouraging and demonstrate clinical efficacy and safety for use. Early research also suggests excellent patient outcomes are possible with minimal rehabilitation and very little time in a sling.

As treatment advances for rotator cuff disease continue to show promise, it is essential for the public to remember that ignoring or “playing through” shoulder pain can set your body up for more extensive problems down the road. If you or someone you care about is suffering from shoulder pain that has gone undiagnosed, it is critical to see a health expert about it right away.