Rotor cuff injuries are enough to knock out even the most active person. Take Tom, a long-time regular client of mine, for example. He is a businessman, who is always under a great deal of stress, but has found peace in a yoga room. He uses massage as therapy for healing his body and his mind. Tom often has ailments that pop up like sciatica, nerve pain, upper back tightness from mental stress on the body. He has had back surgery in the past and has a challenge with his weight. When I saw him most recently, he had wrecked his shoulder working out at the gym.
Most athletes and regular exercisers will face rotator cuff tears at one point or another, as they are the most common shoulder injury. The term “rotator cuff” refers to four muscles of the shoulder that help support the shoulder joint during rest and movement. These muscles, known as the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis, attach the shoulder blade and upper arm bone, and they keep the arm bone against the shoulder socket.
Tom: I don’t know what I did to my shoulder. I went to the gym. I watched a guy older than me on the row machine. It looked easy enough so I got on it. I started rowing. Simple right. Now I’m here with this. I can’t move my shoulder. It hurts. Fix it.
Me: Okay. At any point during rowing, did you feel something pop? Were there any moments where you said to yourself this doesn’t feel right?
Tom: No, no, none of that. It felt good.
Me: And, you never rowed before? You never were taught how to row? You watched some man on a row machine and figured you could do it?
Tom: Yep, that’s about right. Was I wrong? Smile on his face.
Me: Most of the people in the gym are doing exercises wrong. They shouldn’t be the example. In the future, if you don’t know how something works in the gym but you’re curious about it, ask one of the trainers. It’ll help prevent injuries and assure you’re doing the exercise correctly. Enough of the lecturing. What movements hurt your arm? Does it hurt just standing there?
Tom: I can move it just to there. Slightly lifted in front of his body. Forget about behind my back. Raising it to the side is better. I can’t even sleep through the night because it hurts so bad.
Rotator cuff muscles and tendons can be injured over time or with a sudden injury. In an overuse injury, the soft tissues may begin as fraying, often caused by repeated activities. A tear can be partial or complete, with the muscle being torn into two pieces.
Symptoms of a rotator cuff tear can include:
• Shoulder pain
• Difficulty raising the arm overhead or lifting objects, especially above shoulder height.
• Limited sleeping
Me: Have you been to a doctor, a physical therapist?
Tom: Felicia, come on. I go to Yoga, and you to put me back together. The doctor wants to give me pain killers or a cortisone shot and the physical therapist wants to brutally hurt me and tell me to exercise. Here is where I want to be.
Me: Okay. We will take it easy today and see if we can get the body to relax a bit.
This session was a full body 90-minute therapeutic massage to ease the stress the shoulder has put on other parts of the body. Time was also spent gently massaging the structures that make up the entire shoulder joint itself. I massaged the area with Biofreeze, a topical analgesic that uses the cooling effect of menthol to soothe minor muscle and joint pain. It penetrates quickly, offering relief through cold therapy. After massaging the area. I gently and slowly rotated the arm shoulder through its full range of motion. The rotations gradually increased into greater degrees.
By the end the session, Tom was able to move his shoulder with more ease. I reminded him that it will be short lived and the real progress will come from him moving it daily by starting out with short rotations and working up to bigger movements. I also suggested that he see a doctor for a diagnosis and a script for a physical therapist as I suspected it may be torn. I also sent Tom home with a set of shoulder exercises with instructions to ice after the exercises and, at the end of the day, to take an ibuprofen to help with pain and swelling.
While recovering from rotator cuff injuries, you may need to avoid activities that are repeated or painful, such as rowing. Massage therapy can reiterate keeping the shoulder moving while protecting the healing tissues with activities for stretching, strengthening, and for healthy posture.
NOTE: Massage therapists are unable to diagnose a condition. See your doctor for a complete diagnosis.