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  • Writer's pictureNashville PT

What is a rotator cuff?

woman grabbing painful rotator cuff in shoulder

Your shoulder is an incredible joint that allows for a wide range of motion, but did you know that it's supported by a group of muscles and tendons known as the rotator cuff? The rotator cuff plays a crucial role in stabilizing and moving your shoulder, and any injury or dysfunction in this area can lead to pain and limitations in your daily activities. In this blog post, we will dive into the details of the rotator cuff, its functions, common injuries, and how physical therapy can help you regain strength and restore function. So, let's explore the fascinating world of the rotator cuff!

Understanding the Rotator Cuff

The rotator cuff is a group of four muscles that surround the shoulder joint, forming a cuff-like structure. These muscles include the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis. The rotator cuff muscles work together to provide stability to the shoulder joint, control its movement, and allow for smooth and coordinated actions.

shoulder anatomy showing rotator cuff muscles

Functions of the Rotator Cuff

1. Stabilization: One of the key functions of the rotator cuff is to stabilize the shoulder joint. As you move your arm, the rotator cuff muscles keep the head of the humerus (upper arm bone) securely in the socket of the shoulder, preventing excessive movement and potential dislocation.

2. Shoulder Movement: The rotator cuff muscles also play a vital role in shoulder movement. They work together with larger muscles, such as the deltoid and pectoralis major, to control and coordinate the various movements of the shoulder, including raising and lowering the arm, rotating it inward and outward, and reaching across the body.

Common Rotator Cuff Injuries

1. Rotator Cuff Tear: A rotator cuff tear is a common injury that can occur due to trauma, repetitive overhead movements, or degenerative changes in the tendons. It can cause pain, weakness, and limited range of motion in the shoulder. Rotator cuff tears can be partial, involving a portion of the tendon, or full-thickness, where the tendon is completely torn.

2. Rotator Cuff Tendinitis: Tendinitis refers to inflammation of the tendons in the rotator cuff. It often results from overuse, repetitive motions, or aging. Rotator cuff tendinitis can cause pain, swelling, and difficulty with certain movements, particularly those involving lifting or reaching overhead.

3. Shoulder Impingement: Shoulder impingement occurs when the rotator cuff tendons become pinched or compressed between the head of the humerus and the acromion, a bony prominence of the shoulder blade. This can lead to pain, weakness, and limited mobility in the shoulder.

How Physical Therapy Can Help

Physical therapy is a highly effective treatment approach for rotator cuff injuries. A skilled physical therapist can assess your condition, identify the underlying causes of your pain or dysfunction, and develop a personalized treatment plan to address your specific needs. Here are some ways physical therapy can help:

1. Pain Relief: Physical therapy can include various modalities, such as ice or heat therapy, electrical stimulation, or ultrasound, to help alleviate pain and reduce inflammation in the rotator cuff.

2. Strengthening Exercises: Targeted exercises are essential for strengthening the rotator cuff muscles and restoring their function. Your physical therapist will guide you through a progressive exercise program that focuses on improving muscle strength, stability, and mobility.

3. Range of Motion Exercises: Physical therapy will also involve specific exercises to improve your shoulder's range of motion and flexibility. These exercises can help restore normal joint mobility and reduce stiffness.

4. Posture and Body Mechanics Education: Your physical therapist will educate you on proper posture and body mechanics to avoid placing excessive stress on the rotator cuff. Learning proper lifting techniques and body alignment during daily activities can help prevent future injuries.

5. Functional Rehabilitation: Physical therapy will address functional activities, such as reaching, lifting, and overhead movements, to improve your ability to perform daily tasks and return to your desired activities.

woman lifting weights in gym

Don't Ignore the Signs

If you're experiencing shoulder pain, weakness, or limitations in your shoulder movements, don't ignore the signs. Seeking early intervention through physical therapy can prevent further damage, promote healing, and restore your shoulder's strength and function. A skilled physical therapist, like the ones at Nashville Physical Therapy & Performance, will provide the guidance, support, and personalized treatment plan you need to get back to doing what you love.

Take care of your rotator cuff, and it will take care of you. Prioritize your shoulder health, and let physical therapy be your partner in recovery and restoring the function of this incredible joint.


1. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Rotator Cuff Tears. Accessed October 10, 2022.

2. American Physical Therapy Association. Rotator Cuff Tear. Accessed October 10, 2022.

3. Decker MJ, Hintermeister RA, Faber KJ, Hawkins RJ. Serratus anterior muscle activity during selected rehabilitation exercises. Am J Sports Med. 1999;27(6):784-791.

4. Mayo Clinic. Rotator Cuff Injury. Accessed October 10, 2022.

5. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Shoulder Problems. Accessed October 10, 2022.The Rotator Cuff: Understanding and Caring for Your Shoulder's Unsung Heroes

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