With professional baseball already underway and weekend warriors starting up their spring baseball and softball leagues, it is getting to be the time of year when many of these athletes start complaining of shoulder pain. Often times this is due to injury to the rotator cuff.
The rotator cuff consists of four muscles/tendons that act together to stabilize and move the shoulder joint. Due to the function of these muscles, sports that require demanding overhead activities, such as tennis, baseball, or swimming, put the rotator cuff muscles under an undue amount of stress.
Most commonly, these athletes develop tendonitis (or inflammation in the tendon), but occasionally, the tendon will tear. A rotator cuff tear indicates a defect in the tendon that connects the rotator cuff muscle to the bone (humeral head). While these tears can occur from a single traumatic event, they are more commonly seen in athletes due to repetitive wear and tear activities that strain and fail the tendon over time. Sometimes, a narrow space for the passage of the tendon underneath the shoulder blade can result in direct mechanical abrasion of the tendon and has been commonly called impingement syndrome. Unfortunately, rotator cuff tears do not heal on their own. In addition, tears have been shown to get bigger over time and can, unfortunately, lead to irreversible changes that make them hard or even impossible to repair.
Athletes with rotator cuff tears may complain of stiffness and pain during warm-up exercises. Pain is often most prominent during the acceleration phase of throwing or serving. Pitchers will often complain of weakness and a loss of velocity or ability to “control their pitch” at the mound. Depending on the severity of the tear, the player may have obvious weakness during an examination. In athletes and non-athletes alike, the diagnosis of rotator cuff pathology is made by an MRI or ultrasound, with MRI being more commonly used.
In most cases, a trial of conservative treatment is warranted. This involves stretching and strengthening the rotator cuff muscles as well as the muscles that stabilize the scapula (or shoulder blade). Oftentimes, by strengthening the other muscles in and around the shoulder, one can compensate for a small tear in one of the rotator cuff tendons. When non-operative management fails, surgery can be considered.
Several factors influence the decision to pursue surgical treatment, including tear size and pattern, patient expectations, medical comorbidities, and occupational demands. Surgical techniques have considerably improved, such that most rotator cuff tears can be treated and successfully repaired arthroscopically with a minimally invasive approach. Rehabilitation exercises, however, are of tantamount importance to the surgery itself and play a critical role in the short-term recovery and long-term health of the shoulder.
Ninety to 95% of people undergoing surgery for rotator cuff tears typically have good to excellent outcomes. The results in professional baseball players, however, have been less promising. Most likely due to the extremely high demands, these throwers place on their cuff.