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Do Rotator Cuff Tears Heal Themselves?

The rotator cuff in our shoulder is a part of our body we rarely think about. That is, until it begins to hurt. It is the group of tendons and muscles that surround our ball and socket shoulder joint. As we get older or have an injury, we can develop a tear or multiple tears in our rotator cuff, but do we always need surgery, or do rotator cuff tears heal themselves?

Types Of Tears

We can’t answer this question about rotator cuffs healing themselves until we explain the types of tears someone might experience. The type of patient is also a contributing factor. You can have a partial tear or a “full on” tear. You can have a severe injury, fall off your bike, get injured playing sports, be an older person and have a series of minor partial tears, or successively experience “wear and tear”, or tears from repetitive motions.

The fact is many people walk around with rotator cuff tears not even realizing they have one.

These individual circumstances are all different and depending on the incident, you can experience a partial or full tear. The most common symptoms include weakness in the shoulder muscles, limited mobility of the joint, and pain with movement.

MRI of shoulder showing rotator cuff tendon tear. Red highlight focused on the tear tendon.

The best answer we can provide is the following:

No, rotator cuff tears cannot heal themselves, but not all tears require surgery. 

Now let us be more specific.

When Surgery May Be Recommended

If a young person experiences a tear and has acute pain that does not improve with medication and other treatments, surgery may be recommended to repair the cuff. This includes anyone who needs a pain free shoulder to perform their job.

This can also include older adults with severe pain that does not respond to more conservative treatments.

Types Of Treatment

The goal of both treatments and surgery is to relieve pain, improve functionality, and restore strength to the shoulder. These goals can be achieved without surgical intervention.

Some non-surgical treatments to improve a rotator cuff tear include the following:

  • OTC medications like non-steroidal anti-inflammatories for less painful partial tears
  • Prescription anti-inflammatory medications
  • Steroid injections into the shoulder area
  • Physical therapy

A study from 2013 concluded that physical therapy is effective in 73 – 80% of patients with a full thickness tear. In addition, without surgery only one-half of partial or full tears will become larger.

It is of note that chronic weakening of your rotator cuff from aging can lead to tears from relatively minor incidents.

It is important to get a clear explanation from Dr. Robin Fuchs about the severity of your rotator cuff tear, and at the same time describe your own circumstances.

Call (425) 823-4000 to schedule an examination if you are experiencing pain and limited mobility in your shoulder.