Total Shoulder Replacement (Arthroplasty)

Total shoulder arthroplasty (TSA), often called a total shoulder replacement, is a surgical procedure in which part or all of the shoulder joint is replaced. It is estimated that 53,000 people in the United States have shoulder replacement surgery each year, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. That number compares to the more than 900,000 Americans a year who have knee and hip replacement surgery. Physical therapists can help patients who undergo a TSA return to their previous levels of physical activity, including fitness training, or participation in sports like swimming or golf.

What is Total Shoulder Arthoplasty?

Total shoulder arthroplasty is a surgical procedure in which part or all of the shoulder joint is replaced. It is performed on the shoulder when medical interventions, such as other conservative surgeries, medication, and physical therapy no longer provide pain relief. The decision to have a TSA is made following consultation with your orthopedic surgeon and your physical therapist.

A shoulder replacement may be needed if you have any of the following conditions affecting the shoulder, causing severe shoulder pain and limiting your ability to use the affected shoulder:

A TSA involves removing the ends of the bone at the shoulder joint, and replacing them with artificial parts. The upper part of the arm bone (humerus) is shaped like a ball; it is called the "head" of the humerus. During a TSA, the head of the humerus is replaced by a metal ball. The socket that the head of the humerus sits in is called the glenoid fossa. During a TSA, the socket is replaced by a plastic cup.

Due to various physical limitations, your orthopedic surgeon may decide that you are a candidate for another form of TSA, such as:

  • Shoulder hemiarthroplasty, where only the head of the humerus is replaced with a metal ball.

  • Reverse TSA, where the metal ball and plastic socket are reversed. This procedure is recommended when the rotator cuff muscles of the shoulder are damaged. The plastic socket is attached to the top of the humerus, and the metal ball is attached to the socket. This procedure allows another shoulder muscle, called the deltoid, to take over for the damaged rotator cuff muscles, improving functional range of motion, strength, and stability of the shoulder

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How Can a Physical Therapist Help?

Physical therapy plays a vital role in ensuring a safe recovery by improving shoulder function, and limiting pain following a TSA. Your physical therapist will work with you prior to and following your surgery, to help you safely return to your previous levels of activity, including performing household chores, job duties, and recreational activities.

 

Before Surgery

The better physical condition your shoulder is in prior to surgery, the better your recovery will be. Your physical therapist will teach you exercises to build shoulder strength, and improve your shoulder and upper back movement to keep the shoulder as strong and mobile as possible up until the time of surgery.

After Surgery

Your physical therapist will educate you about precautions to take after surgery, such as wearing a sling to perform all activities, and gradually beginning to safely move your arm. If you are a smoker, quitting smoking will improve your healing process.

After your TSA, you will likely stay in the hospital for 2 to 3 days. If you have other medical conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease, your hospital stay may be a few days longer. Your shoulder will be placed in a sling for the next 2 to 6 weeks; you will be advised to not move your shoulder on your own.

Your physical therapy will begin within a day or two of your surgery. A hospital physical therapist will visit your room to teach you how to perform simple tasks like brushing your teeth, and tell you what movements (such as pushing, pulling, or reaching with the affected arm) you simply cannot perform. Your physical therapist will teach you how to get in and out of bed safely, how to get the sling on and off, and how to get dressed while keeping your shoulder in a safe position. You will also learn how to minimize pain and swelling in the area by applying an ice pack, and elevating the upper arm.

You may need some help from friends or family members with daily activities for the first few days or weeks after your surgery. You will not be able to drive for the first few weeks after surgery.

 

As You Recover

When you are discharged from the hospital, continuation of physical therapy is essential. Your surgeon and physical therapist will work as a team to ensure your safe recovery. Your physical therapist will teach you exercises that may include:

Range-of-Motion Exercises. It is important to not move your shoulder suddenly or with any force for the first 2 to 6 weeks following surgery, to allow proper healing. Your physical therapist will passively move your shoulder in different directions to allow you to safely begin regaining movement. Your physical therapist will also teach you gentle exercises to perform at home. You will also learn range-of-motion exercises for the elbow and hand, so these joints do not get stiff from being held in a sling. Squeezing a ball or putty will help keep your grip strong, while your shoulder recovers. You will use ice packs on the shoulder and elevate your arm on pillows to allow gravity to help reduce the swelling in the shoulder, as instructed by your physical therapist.

Strengthening Exercises. As your shoulder mobility returns within a few weeks or months, your physical therapist will guide you through a shoulder strengthening program. You may use resistive bands and weights to perform gentle strengthening exercises.

Functional Training. Your physical therapist will help you regain everyday shoulder movements, such as reaching into a cupboard, reaching behind your body to tuck in your shirt, or reaching across your body to fasten a seat belt.

Job and Sport-Specific Training. Your physical therapist will design a personalized program to enable you to resume your job tasks without pain. These may include reaching, pushing, or carrying movements. You will also receive sport-specific training if you are planning to return to a sport. Your physical therapist will create a specialized home or fitness-center exercise program based on your individual needs, to be continued long after formal physical therapy has been completed.

Can this Injury or Condition be Prevented?

If you begin noticing your shoulder is painful and you are losing the ability to move your shoulder, a physical therapist can help. A properly designed exercise program can delay or even help you avoid surgery. A physical therapist will teach you specific, safe exercises to improve your shoulder flexibility and strength, and teach you how to manage your pain. Proper nutrition and physical activity will keep all of your joints healthy. Avoiding smoking is essential for proper healing and overall recovery from any injury.

Real Life Experiences

Charles is a 59-year-old golfer and swimmer with a history of osteoarthritis that began when he was 45 years old. Recently, Charles began to notice an increase in pain and difficulty when he reached overhead with his right arm. He also noticed that he couldn't throw a ball like he used to, and his shoulder was hurting during his golf swing and swim stroke. Just this month, Charles began to have difficulty shifting gears while driving, and realized that he could no longer lift his arm to reach into the cupboard to get his coffee cup. He called his doctor.

Charles's doctor took his medical history and thoroughly examined his shoulder. He diagnosed severe shoulder arthritis. He referred Charles to an orthopedic surgeon, who scheduled Charles for a TSA. Charles had a presurgery consultation with his physical therapist to learn what to expect from his recovery after surgery. His physical therapist explained how to wear and use a sling, and how to manage any pain or swelling. He also showed Charles the exercises that he would be performing.

The first day after his surgery, Charles' hospital physical therapist visited his room to teach him some deep-breathing exercises to keep his lungs inflated and reduce any risk of developing complications, such as pnemonia. She taught him how to properly use his sling, and guided him through a few gentle elbow and hand exercises. She also showed him how to safely get in and out of bed and a chair, without putting pressure on his right shoulder.

The second day after surgery, Charles' physical therapist taught him how to remove the sling safely to perform gentle pendulum exercises that helps to keep the shoulder from getting stiff. He learned how to avoid using his right shoulder at all other times, and to keep it in the sling, except when doing the pendulum exercises, and gentle elbow and hand exercises. He learned safe techniques for washing and other activities of daily living, including putting on a shirt.

The third day after surgery was Charles' last day in the hospital. His physical therapist helped him make arrangements for outpatient physical therapy.

Charles began his outpatient physical therapy just days after his TSA. His physical therapist performed passive movements with his right shoulder to ensure that it regained full mobility. She designed a home-exercise program for him, continuing the pendulum exercises and active elbow and hand exercises, as well as conservative shoulder blade squeezes.

As his shoulder strength and movement began to be restored, Charles' physical therapist added "active assisted" exercises (movement patterns assisted by a pulley or by the opposite shoulder) to gently increase his right shoulder mobility. She taught Charles how to squeeze a tennis ball a few times a day to improve his grip strength. Charles also learned how to apply an ice pack, and elevate his right shoulder at home and after each physical therapy session.

Eight weeks following his TSA, Charles was able to reach his right arm farther overhead than he was able to before his surgery!

After 12 weeks, under the guidance of his physical therapist, Charles has more shoulder motion and much less pain than he had prior to his TSA. He is able to slowly return to golf and swimming by performing his guided exercises, which target specific muscles needed to safely return to these activities. He began with gently swinging a golf club, and now he is able to perform a full golf swing.

Now, 4 months after his TSA, Charles reaches into his cupboard each Saturday morning for his coffee cup, and enjoys a healthy breakfast before heading out to the golf course for a pain-free round of golf. His scores are better than in many recent years, and he plans to lead his team to a league championship!

What Kind of Physical Therapist Do I Need?

All physical therapists are prepared through education and experience to treat a total shoulder arthroplasty condition/injury. However, you may want to consider:

  • A physical therapist who is experienced in treating people with an orthopedic condition/injury. Some physical therapists have a practice with an orthopedic, manual therapy, and sports medicine focus.

  • A physical therapist who is a board-certified clinical specialist, or who completed a residency or fellowship in orthopedics physical therapy. This therapist has advanced knowledge, experience, and skills that may apply to your condition.

You can find physical therapists who have these and other credentials by using Find a PT, the online tool built by the American Physical Therapy Association to help you search for physical therapists with specific clinical expertise in your geographic area.

General tips when you're looking for a physical therapist (or any other health care provider):

  • Get recommendations from family and friends or from other health care providers.

  • When you contact a physical therapy clinic for an appointment, ask about the physical therapists' experience in helping people who have underlying shoulder or orthopedic conditions.

  • During your first visit with the physical therapist, be prepared to describe your symptoms in as much detail as possible, and say what makes your symptoms worse.

Further Reading

The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) believes that consumers should have access to information that could help them make health care decisions, and also prepare them for their visit with their health care provider.

The following articles provide some of the best scientific evidence related to physical therapy treatment ofcervical radiculopathy. The articles report recent research and give an overview of the standards of practice both in the United States and internationally. The article titles are linked either to a PubMed* abstract of the article or to free full text, so that you can read it or print out a copy to bring with you to your health care provider.

ScienceDaily.  Published July 13, 2009. Accessed February 11, 2015

Golant A, Christoforou D, Zuckerman JD, Kwon YW. Return to sports after shoulder arthroplasty: a survey of surgeons' preferences. J Shoulder Elbow Surg. 2012;21(4):554–560. Article Summary in PubMed.

Schumann K, Flury MP, Schwyzer HK, Simmen BR, Drerup S, Goldhahn J. Sports activity after anatomical total shoulder arthroplasty. Am J Sports Med. 2010;38(10):2097–2105. Article Summary in PubMed.

Boardman ND III, Cofield RH, Bengtson KA, Little R, Jones MC, Rowland CM. Rehabilitation after total shoulder arthroplasty. J Arthroplasty. 2001;16(4):483–486. Article Summary in PubMed.

Wirth MA, Rockwood CA Jr. Complications of total shoulder-replacement arthroplasty. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 1996;78(4):603–616. Article Summary in PubMed.

*PubMed is a free online resource developed by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). PubMed contains millions of citations to biomedical literature, including citations in the National Library of Medicine’s MEDLINE database.

Authored by Julie A. Mulcahy, PT, MPT. Reviewed by the MoveForwardPT.com editorial board.

 

Frozen Shoulder (Adhesive Capsulitis)

Often called a stiff or “frozen shoulder,” adhesive capsulitis occurs in about 2% to 5% of the American population. It affects women more than men and is typically diagnosed in people over the age of 45. Of the people who have had adhesive capsulitis in 1 shoulder, it is estimated that 20% to 30% will get it in the other shoulder as well. Physical therapists help people with adhesive capsulitis address pain and stiffness, and restore shoulder movement in the safest and most effective way possible.

What is Frozen Shoulder (Adhesive Capsulitis)?

Adhesive capsulitis is the stiffening of the shoulder due to scar tissue, which results in painful movement and loss of motion. The actual cause of adhesive capsulitis is a matter for debate. Some believe it is caused by inflammation, such as when the lining of a joint becomes inflamed (synovitis), or by autoimmune reactions, where the body launches an "attack" against its own substances and tissues. Other possible causes include:

  • Reactions after an injury or surgery

  • Pain from other conditions, such as arthritis, a rotator cuff tear, bursitis, or tendinitis, that has caused a person to stop moving the shoulder

  • Immobilization of the arm, such as in a sling, after surgery or fracture

Often, however, there is no clear reason why adhesive capsulitis develops.

 

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How Does it Feel?

Most people with adhesive capsulitis have worsening pain and a loss of movement. Adhesive capsulitis can be broken down into 4 stages; your physical therapist can help determine what stage you are in.

Stage 1: "Prefreezing"

During stage 1 of its development, it may be difficult to identify your problem as adhesive capsulitis. You've had symptoms for 1 to 3 months, and they're getting worse. Movement of the shoulder causes pain. It usually aches when you're not using it, but the pain increases and becomes "sharp" with movement. You'll begin to limit shoulder motion during this period and protect the shoulder by using it less. The movement loss is most noticeable in "external rotation" (this is when you rotate your arm away from your body), but you might start to lose motion when you raise your arm or reach behind your back. Pain is the hallmark feature of this stage; you may experience pain during the day and at night.

Stage 2: "Freezing"

By this stage, you've had symptoms for 3 to 9 months, most likely with a progressive loss of shoulder movement and an increase in pain (especially at night). The shoulder still has some range of movement, but it is limited by both pain and stiffness.

Stage 3: "Frozen"

Your symptoms have persisted for 9 to 14 months, and you have a greatly decreased range of shoulder movement. During the early part of this stage, there is still a substantial amount of pain. Toward the end of this stage, however, pain decreases, with the pain usually occurring only when you move your shoulder as far you can move it.

Stage 4: "Thawing"

You've had symptoms for 12 to 15 months, and there is a big decrease in pain, especially at night. You still have a limited range of movement, but your ability to complete your daily activities involving overhead motion is improving at a rapid rate.

How Is It Diagnosed?

Often, physical therapists don't see patients with adhesive capsulitis until well into the freezing phase or early in the frozen phase. Sometimes, people are being treated for other shoulder conditions when their physical therapist notices the signs and symptoms of adhesive capsulitis. Your physical therapist will perform a thorough evaluation, including an extensive health history, to rule out other diagnoses. Your physical therapist will look for a specific pattern in your decreased range of motion called a "capsular pattern" that is typical with adhesive capsulitis. In addition, your physical therapist will consider other conditions you might have, such as diabetes, thyroid disorders, and autoimmune disorders, that are associated with adhesive capsulitis.

How Can a Physical Therapist Help?

Your physical therapist's overall goal is to restore your movement, so you can perform your daily activities. Once the evaluation process has identified the stage of your condition, your physical therapist will create an individualized exercise program tailored to your specific needs. Exercise has been found to be most effective for those who are in stage 2 or higher. Your treatment may include:

Stages 1 and 2

Exercises and manual therapy. Your physical therapist will help you maintain as much range of motion as possible and will help reduce your pain. Your therapist may use a combination of range-of-motion exercises and manual therapy (hands-on) techniques to maintain shoulder movement.

Modalities. Your physical therapist may use heat and ice treatments (modalities) to help relax the muscles prior to other forms of treatment.

Home-exercise program. Your physical therapist will give you a gentle home-exercise program designed to help reduce your loss of motion. Your therapist will warn you that being overly aggressive with stretching in this stage may make your shoulder pain worse.

Your physical therapist will match your treatment activities and intensity to your symptoms, and educate you on appropriate use of the affected arm. Your therapist will carefully monitor your progress to ensure a safe healing procedure is followed. 

Pain medication. Sometimes, conservative care cannot reduce the pain of adhesive capsulitis. In that case, your physical therapist may refer you for an injection of a safe anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving medication. Research has shown that although these injections don’t provide longer-term benefits for range of motion and don’t shorten the duration of the condition, they do offer short-term pain reduction.

Stage 3

The focus of treatment during phase 3 is on the return of motion. Treatment may include:

Stretching techniques. Your physical therapist may introduce more intense stretching techniques to encourage greater movement and flexibility.

Manual therapy. Your physical therapist may take your manual therapy to a higher level, encouraging the muscles and tissues to loosen up.

Strengthening exercises. You may begin strengthening exercises targeting the shoulder area as well as your core muscles. Your home-exercise program will change to include these exercises.

Stage 4

In the final stage, your physical therapist will focus on the return of "normal" shoulder body mechanics and your return to normal, everyday, pain-free activities. Your treatment may include:

Stretching techniques. The stretching techniques in this stage will be similar to previous ones you’ve learned, but will focus on the specific directions and positions that are limited for you. 

Manual therapy. Your physical therapist may perform manual therapy techniques in very specific positions and ranges that are problematic for you. They will focus on eliminating the last of your limitations.

Strength training. Your physical therapist will prescribe specific strengthening exercises related to any weakness that you may have to help you perform your work or recreational tasks. 

Return to work or sport. Your physical therapist will address movements and tasks that are required in your daily and recreational life.

Can this Injury or Condition be Prevented?

The cause of adhesive capsulitis is debatable, with no definitive cause. Therefore, to date, there is no known method of prevention. The onset of the condition is usually gradual, with the disease process needing to "run its course." However, the sooner you contact your physical therapist, the sooner you will receive appropriate information on how to most effectively address your symptoms. 

Real Life Experiences

Cheryl is 47-year-old office manager who swims and hikes on the weekends. A few months ago, Cheryl began having pain in her left shoulder when she reached up to file archived reports at work. At first she ignored it, but then noticed her shoulder was aching after work and sometimes at night. She began to limit her movement due to pain. Just this week, she chose not to visit her local pool for her regular swim. She decided to contact a physical therapist.

Cheryl’s physical therapist took her health history, and asked her to describe when the pain began, and how her current symptoms are affecting her. Cheryl reports no accident or trauma, and that the pain has slowly increased over the past few months. She notes that she has to make adjustments at work because she can’t lift her arm above shoulder level, and that the pain is now affecting her sleep. Her physical therapist conducts a thorough physical examination and diagnoses stage 2 frozen shoulder (adhesive capsulitis).

He begins Cheryl’s rehabilitation with heat treatments to relax her muscles, and designs an individualized home-exercise program to address her symptoms and help stall any loss of motion. He encourages Cheryl to perform her home exercises every day.

Cheryl’s treatments during this phase consist of gentle movements performed by her physical therapist (manual therapy), to help maintain the shoulder joint’s current range of motion. At this point, he focuses treatment not on increasing the shoulder’s range of motion, but on mobilizing the joint to reduce pain and reduce the amount of movement that is lost.

When Cheryl progresses into stage 3 ("frozen") adhesive capsulitis, her visits to the physical therapist are increased. He uses stretching and manual therapy techniques to improve her range of motion. He updates Cheryl’s home-exercise program to match her current limitations and function.

After a few more weeks of treatment, Cheryl reports minimal pain, and her range of motion is beginning to increase. Her treatment is reduced to weekly visits, and then to twice monthly visits. She begins to slowly return to swimming; her physical therapist prescribes a safe and appropriate program to follow, as she resumes her activities. 

After 2 more months of treatment, Cheryl’s range of motion is normal, and her pain has stopped. She has happily returned to her regular swimming schedule, and feels stronger than she has in years! Cheryl's physical therapist credits her excellent recovery to her full participation in her treatment and home-exercise programs.

This story was based on a real-life case. Your case may be different. Your physical therapist will tailor a treatment program to your specific case.

What Kind of Physical Therapist Do I Need?

All physical therapists are prepared through education and experience to treat people who have frozen shoulder, or adhesive capsulitis. You may want to consider:

  • A physical therapist who is experienced in treating people with orthopedic, or musculoskeletal, problems.

  • A physical therapist who is a board-certified clinical specialist or who completed a residency or fellowship in orthopaedic physical therapy, manual physical therapy, or specializes in the treatment of the upper extremity. This therapist has advanced knowledge, experience, and skills that may apply to your condition.

You can find physical therapists who have these and other credentials by using Find a PT, the online tool built by the American Physical Therapy Association to help you search for physical therapists with specific clinical expertise in your geographic area.

General tips when you're looking for a physical therapist:

  • Get recommendations from family and friends or from other health care providers.

  • When you contact a physical therapy clinic for an appointment, ask about the physical therapist's experience in helping people with frozen shoulder.

  • During your first visit with the physical therapist, be prepared to describe your symptoms in as much detail as possible, and say what makes your symptoms worse.

Further Reading

The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) believes that consumers should have access to information that could help them make health care decisions and also prepare them for their visit with their health care provider.

The following articles provide some of the best scientific evidence related to physical therapy treatment of adhesive capsulitis. The articles report recent research and give an overview of the standards of practice for treatment of adhesive capsulitis both in the United States and internationally. The article titles are linked either to a PubMed abstract of the article or to free full text, so that you can read it or print out a copy to bring with you to your health care provider.

Jain TK, Sharma NK. The effectiveness of physiotherapeutic interventions in the treatment of frozen shoulder/adhesive capsulitis: a systematic review. J Back Musculoskelet Rehabil. 2014;27:247–273. Article Summary in PubMed.

Russell S, Jariwala A, Conlon R, et al. A blinded, randomized, controlled trial assessing conservative management strategies from frozen shoulder. J Shoulder Elbow Surg. 2014;23:500–507. Article Summary in PubMed.

Rill BK, Fleckenstein CM, Levy MS, et al. Predictors of outcome after nonoperative and operative treatment of adhesive capsulitis.Am J Sports Med. 2011;39:567–574. Article Summary in PubMed.

Neviaser AS, Hannafin JA. Adhesive capsulitis: a review of current treatment. Am J Sports Med. 2010;38:2346–2356. Article Summary in PubMed.

Jewell DV, Riddle DL, Thacker LR. Interventions associated with an increased or decreased likelihood of pain reduction and improved function in patients with adhesive capsulitis: a retrospective cohort study. Phys Ther. 2009;89:419–429. Free Article.

Kelley MJ, McClure PW, Leggin BG. Frozen shoulder: evidence and a proposed model guiding rehabilitation. J Ortho Sports Phys Ther. 2009;39:135-148. Article Summary in PubMed.

Levine WN, Kashyap CP, Bak SF, et al. Nonoperative management of idiopathic adhesive capsulitis. J Shoulder Elbow Surg. 2007;16:569–573. Article Summary in PubMed.

Sheridan MA, Hannafin JA. Upper extremity: emphasis on frozen shoulder. Orthop Clin North Am. 2006;37:531–539. Article Summary in PubMed.

Diercks RL, Stevens M. Gentle thawing of the frozen shoulder: a prospective study of supervised neglect versus intensive physical therapy in seventy-seven patients with frozen shoulder syndrome followed up for two years. J Shoulder Elbow Surg.2004:13:499–502. Article Summary in PubMed.

Reviewed by the MoveForwardPT.com editorial board.



Rotator Cuff Tear

What is a Rotator Cuff Tear?

The "rotator cuff" is a group of 4 muscles and their tendons (tissues that attach muscles to bones), which connects the upper arm bone, or humerus, to the shoulder blade. The important job of the rotator cuff is to keep the shoulder joint stable. Sometimes, the rotator cuff becomes inflamed or irritated due to heavy lifting, repetitive arm movements, or trauma such as a fall. A rotator cuff tear occurs when injuries to the muscles or tendons cause tissue damage or disruption.

Rotator cuff tears are called either "full thickness" or partial thickness," depending on how severe they are.

  • Full-thickness tears extend from the top to the bottom of a rotator cuff muscle/tendon.

  • Partial-thickness tears affect at least some portion of a rotator cuff muscle/tendon, but do not extend all the way through.

Tears often develop as a result of either a traumatic event or long-term overuse of the shoulder. These conditions are commonly called “acute” or “chronic.”

  • Acute rotator cuff tears are those that occur suddenly, often due to traumas, such as a fall or lifting of a heavy object.

  • Chronic rotator cuff tears are much slower to develop. These tears are often the result of repeated actions with the arms working above shoulder level, such as with ball-throwing sports or certain work activities.

People with chronic rotator cuff injuries often have a history of rotator cuff tendon irritation that causes shoulder pain with movement. This condition is known as shoulder impingement syndrome.

Rotator cuff tears also may occur in combination with injuries or irritation of the biceps tendon at the shoulder, or with labral tears (to the ring of cartilage at the shoulder joint). Your physical therapist will explain the particular details of your rotator cuff tear.

 

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How Does it Feel?

People with rotator cuff tears can experience:

  • Pain over the top of the shoulder or down the outside of the arm

  • Shoulder weakness

  • Loss of shoulder motion

  • A feeling of weakness or heaviness in the arm

  • Inability to lift the arm to reach up, or reach behind the back

  • Inability to perform common daily activities due to pain and limited motion

How Is It Diagnosed?

To help pinpoint the cause of your shoulder pain, your physical therapist will complete a thorough examination that will include learning details of your symptoms, assessing your ability to move your arm, identifying weakness, and performing special tests that may indicate a rotator cuff tear. For instance, your physical therapist may raise your arm, move your arm out to the side, or raise your arm and ask you to resist a force, all at specific angles of elevation.

In some cases, the results of these tests might indicate the need for a referral to an orthopedist or other professional for imaging tests, such as ultrasound imaging, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or a computed tomography (CT) scan.

How Can a Physical Therapist Help?

Once a rotator cuff tear has been diagnosed, you will work with your orthopedist and physical therapist to decide if you should have surgery or if you can try to manage your recovery without surgery.

If you don't need surgery, your physical therapist will work with you to restore your range of motion, muscle strength, and coordination, so that you can return to your regular activities. In some cases, you may learn to modify your physical activity so that you put less stress on your shoulder.

If you decide to have surgery, your physical therapist can help you both before and after the procedure.

Regardless of which treatment you have—physical therapy only, or surgery and physical therapy—early treatment can help you speed the healing process and avoid permanent damage.

If You Have an Acute Injury

If a rotator cuff tear is suspected following a trauma, seek the attention of a physical therapist or other health care provider to rule out the possibility of serious life- or limb-threatening conditions. Once serious injury is ruled out, your physical therapist will help you manage your pain and will prepare you for the best course of treatment.

If You Have a Chronic Injury

A physical therapist can help manage the symptoms of chronic rotator cuff tears as well as improve how your shoulder works. For large rotator cuff tears that can't be fully repaired, physical therapists can teach special strategies to improve shoulder movement. However, if physical therapy and conservative treatment alone do not improve your function, surgical options may exist.

If You Have Surgery

If your condition is severe, you may require surgery to restore use of the shoulder; physical therapy will be an important part of your recovery process. The repaired rotator cuff is vulnerable to reinjury following shoulder surgery; working with a physical therapist is crucial to safely regaining full use of the injured arm. After the surgical repair, you will need to wear a sling to keep your shoulder and arm protected as the repair heals. Your physical therapist will apply treatments during this phase of your recovery to reduce pain and gently begin to restore movement. Once you are able to remove the sling for exercise, your physical therapist will begin your full rehabilitation program.

Your physical therapist will design a treatment program based on both the findings of the evaluation and your personal goals. Your physical therapist will guide you through your postsurgical rehabilitation, which will progress from gentle range-of-motion and strengthening exercises to activity- or sport-specific exercises.

Your treatment program most likely will include a combination of exercises to strengthen the rotator cuff and other muscles that support the shoulder joint. The time line for your recovery will vary depending on the surgical procedure and your general state of health, but return to sports, heavy lifting, and other strenuous activities might not begin until 4 months after surgery and full return may not occur until 9 months to 1 year after surgery. Following surgery, your shoulder will be susceptible to reinjury. It is extremely important to follow the postoperative instructions provided by your surgeon and physical therapist.

Your rehabilitation will typically be divided into 4 phases:

  • Phase I (maximal protection). Phase 1 of treatment lasts for the first few weeks after your surgery, when your shoulder is at the greatest risk of reinjury. During this phase, your arm will be in a sling. You will likely need assistance or need strategies to accomplish everyday tasks, such as bathing and dressing. Your physical therapist will teach you gentle range-of-motion and isometric strengthening exercises, provide hands-on treatments (manual therapy), such as gentle massage, offer advice on reducing your pain, and may use techniques such as cold compression and electrical stimulation to relieve pain.

  • Phase II (moderate protection). This next phase has the goal of restoring mobility to the shoulder. You will reduce the use of your sling, and your range-of-motion and strengthening exercises will become more challenging. Exercises will be added to strengthen the "core" muscles of your trunk and shoulder blade (scapula), and the rotator-cuff muscles that provide additional support and stability to your shoulder. You will be able to begin using your arm for daily activities, but will still avoid heavy lifting. Your physical therapist may use special hands-on mobilization techniques during this phase to help restore your shoulder's range of motion.

  • Phase III (return to activity). This phase has the goal of restoring your strength and joint awareness to equal that of your other shoulder. At this point, you should have full use of your arm for daily activities, but you will still be unable to participate in activities such as sports, yard work, or physically strenuous work-related tasks. Your physical therapist will advance the difficulty of your exercises by adding weight or by having you use more challenging movement patterns. A modified weight-lifting/gym-based program may also be started during this phase.

  • Phase IV (return to occupation/sport). This phase will help you return to work, sports, and other higher-level activities. During this phase, your physical therapist will instruct you in activity-specific exercises to meet your needs. For certain athletes, this may include throwing and catching drills. For others, it may include practice in lifting heavier items onto shelves, or instruction in proper positioning for everyday tasks such as raking, shoveling, or doing housework.

Can this Injury or Condition be Prevented?

A physical therapist can help you reduce the worsening of the symptoms of a rotator cuff tear and may decrease your risk of worsening a tear, especially if you seek assistance at the first sign of shoulder pain or discomfort. To avoid developing a rotator cuff tear from an existing shoulder problem, it is imperative to stop performing actions that could make it worse. Your physical therapist can help you strengthen your rotator cuff muscles, train you to avoid potentially harmful positions, and determine when it is appropriate for you to return to your normal activities.

To maintain shoulder health and prevent rotator cuff tears, physical therapists recommend that you:

  • Avoid repeated overhead arm positions that may cause shoulder pain. If your job requires such movements, seek out the advice of a physical therapist to learn arm positions that may be used with less risk.

  • Apply rotator-cuff muscle and shoulder-blade strengthening exercises into your normal exercise routine. The strength of the rotator cuff is just as important as the strength of any other muscle group. To avoid potential harm to the rotator cuff, general strengthening and fitness programs may improve shoulder health.

  • Practice good posture. A forward position of the head and shoulders has been shown to alter shoulder-blade position and create shoulder impingement syndrome.

  • Avoid sleeping on your side with your arm stretched overhead, or lying on your shoulder. These positions can begin the process that causes rotator cuff damage and may be associated with increasing your pain level.

  • Avoid smoking; it can decrease the blood flow to your rotator cuff.

  • Consult a physical therapist at the first sign of symptoms.

Real Life Experiences

Jonathan is a 55-year-old professor who leads a relatively sedentary lifestyle. Recently, with the help of a colleague, he decided to repaint his house. Over the past 3 weeks, he has spent hours a day on a ladder, reaching overhead to scrape old paint and apply new coats. Starting 2 weeks ago, Jonathan began to feel pain in his shoulder after working an hour or so each day. Now, every time he raises his right arm overhead, he feels a sharp pain in his shoulder area. He admits that the pain has been steadily getting worse, and now his arm feels weak. He decides to stop his painting project and call a physical therapist.

Jonathan’s physical therapist takes his health history, noting his lack of daily exercise, and has him describe his symptoms, when they started, and what they now prevent him from doing. He examines Jonathan’s shoulder and arm using the procedures described above. Based on the findings from the examination, Jonathan’s physical therapist suspects that he may have a rotator cuff tear. He advises Jonathan to avoid all activities that require reaching overhead, and to protect the irritated muscles and tendons by performing actions, such as resting his elbow on an armrest when sitting. He refers Jonathan to a physician for an MRI. The test results confirm a diagnosis of a partial-thickness rotator cuff tear.

Jonathan’s physical therapist begins his treatment by teaching him gentle movement and strengthening exercises, and shows him how to apply ice to the shoulder at home to help decrease any irritation and pain. During phase 1 of treatment, he teaches Jonathan specific exercises to help restore pain free range-of-motion and activation of the rotator cuff muscles. 

During phase 2 of Jonathan’s rehabilitation, his physical therapist prescribes exercises to strengthen his rotator cuff and shoulder blade muscles, and addresses any remaining limitations in motion with manual therapy (hands-on treatment) techniques. He teaches Jonathan new movements to improve his posture and his ability to raise his arm without making his symptoms worse.

As Jonathan progresses, his physical therapist adds shoulder exercises that are performed in various positions, functional activities for the arm, and core strengthening exercises. He encourages Jonathan to start taking daily walks and explore other gym-based activities.

Six weeks after starting physical therapy, Jonathan has restored his ability to raise his arm over his head and feels stronger and more fit than he has in years. He has returned to his house painting, with the guidance of his physical therapist. He limits the time spent reaching overhead, adjusts his movements to protect his shoulder at all times, takes daily walks, and performs strengthening exercises to maintain his new-found fitness.

Just this week, a few of Jonathan’s students surprise him by showing up to complete his house-painting project themselves! Jonathan invites them to join him for regular “walk and talk” sessions, where they discuss current class topics while improving their overall fitness.

This story was based on a real-life case. Your case may be different. Your physical therapist will tailor a treatment program to your specific case.

What Kind of Physical Therapist Do I Need?

All physical therapists are prepared through education and experience to treat patients who have a rotator cuff tear, but you may want to consider:

  • A physical therapist who is experienced in treating people with musculoskeletal problems. Some physical therapists have a practice with an orthopedic focus.

  • A physical therapist who is a board-certified clinical specialist or who completed a residency or fellowship in orthopedic physical therapy has advanced knowledge, experience, and skills that may apply to your condition.

You can find physical therapists who have these and other credentials by using Find a PT, the online tool built by the American Physical Therapy Association to help you search for physical therapists with specific clinical expertise in your geographic area.

General tips when you're looking for a physical therapist (or any other health care provider):

  • Get recommendations from family and friends or from other health care providers.

  • When you contact a physical therapy clinic for an appointment, ask about the physical therapists' experience in helping people with labral tears.

  • During your first visit with the physical therapist, be prepared to describe your symptoms in as much detail as possible, and say what makes your symptoms worse.

Further Reading

The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) believes that consumers should have access to information that could help them make health care decisions and also prepare them for their visit with their health care provider.

APTA has determined that the following articles provide some of the best scientific evidence for how to treat rotator cuff tear. The articles report recent research and give an overview of the standards of practice for treatment both in the United States and internationally. The article titles are listed by year and are linked either to a PubMed* abstract of the article or to free access of the full article, so that you can read it or print out a copy to bring with you to your health care provider.

Kukkonen J, Joulkainen A, Lehtinen J, et al. Treatment of nontraumatic rotator cuff tears: a randomized controlled trial with two years of clinical and imaging follow-up [published correction appears in: J Bone Joint Surg Am. 2016]. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 2015; 97:1729–1737. Article Summary in PubMed.

Eljabu W, Klinger HM, von Knoch M. The natural history of rotator cuff tear: a systematic review. Arch Orthop Trauma Surg.2015;135:1055–1061. Article Summary in PubMed.

Longo UG, Franceschi F, Berton A, et al. Conservative treatment and rotator cuff tear progression. Med Sport Sci. 2012;57:90–99. Article Summary in PubMed.

Düzgün I, Baltacı G, Atay OA. Comparison of slow and accelerated rehabilitation protocol after arthroscopic rotator cuff repair: pain and functional activity.Acta Orthop Traumatol Turc. 2011;45:23–33. Free Article.

Pedowitz RA, Yamaguchi K, Ahmad CS, et al. Optimizing the management of rotator cuff problems.J Am Acad Orthop Surg. 2011;19:368–379. Article Summary in PubMed.

Parsons BO, Gruson KI, Chen DD, et al. Does slower rehabilitation after arthroscopic rotator cuff repair lead to long-term stiffness? J Shoulder Elbow Surg. 2010;19:1034-1039. Article Summary in PubMed.

Oh JH, Kim SH, Ji HM, et al. Prognostic factors affecting anatomic outcome of rotator cuff repair and correlation with functional outcome. Arthroscopy. 2009;25:30-39. Article Summary in PubMed.

Millar AL, Lasheway PA, Eaton W, Christensen F. A retrospective, descriptive study of shoulder outcomes in outpatient physical therapy.J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2006;36:403–414. Article Summary in PubMed.

*PubMed is a free online resource developed by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).  PubMed contains millions of citations to biomedical literature, including citations in the National Library of Medicine’s MEDLINE database.

Authored by Charles Thigpen, PT, ATC, PhD, and Lane Bailey, PT, DPT. Reviewed by the 
MoveForwardPT.com editorial board.

Shoulder Labral Tear

An unstable shoulder joint can be the cause or the result of a labral tear. "Labral" refers to the ring of cartilage (glenoid labrum) that surrounds the base of the shoulder joint. Injuries to the labrum are common, can cause a great deal of pain, and may make it hard to move your arm. A labral tear can occur from a fall or from repetitive work activities or sports that require you to use your arms raised above your head. Some labral tears can be managed with physical therapy; in severe cases, surgery may be required to repair the torn labrum.

The ring of cartilage called the glenoid labrum provides extra support for the shoulder joint, helping to keep it in place. A shoulder labral tear occurs when part of this ring is disrupted, frayed, or torn. Tears may lead to shoulder pain, an unstable shoulder joint, and, in severe cases, dislocation of the shoulder. Likewise, a shoulder dislocation can result in labral tears.

When you think of the shoulder joint, picture a golf ball (the head of the upper-arm bone, or humerus) resting on a golf tee (the glenoid fossa, a shallow cavity or socket located on the shoulder blade, or scapula). The labrum provides a rim for the socket (golf tee) so that the humerus (golf ball) does not easily fall off. If the labrum is torn, it is harder for the humerus to stay in the socket. The end result is that the shoulder joint becomes unstable and prone to injury.

Because the biceps tendon attaches to the shoulder blade through the labrum, labral tears can occur when you put extra strain on the biceps muscle, such as when you throw a ball. Tears also can result from pinching or compressing the shoulder joint, when the arm is raised overhead.

There are 2 types of labral tears:

  • Traumatic labral tears usually occur because of a single incident, such as a shoulder dislocation or an injury from heavy lifting. People who use their arms raised over their heads—such as weight lifters, gymnasts, and construction workers—are more likely to experience traumatic labral tears. Activities where the force occurs at a distance from the shoulder, such as striking a hammer or swinging a racquet, can cause a traumatic labral tear. Falling on an outstretched arm also can cause this type of tear.

  • Nontraumatic labral tears most often occur because of muscle weakness or shoulder joint instability. When the muscles that stabilize the shoulder joint are weak, more stress is put on the labrum, leading to a tear. People with nontraumatic tears tend to have more "looseness" or greater mobility throughout all their joints, which might be a factor in the development of a tear.

LabralTear_SM.jpg

How Does it Feel?

A shoulder labral tear may cause you to feel:

  • Pain over the top of your shoulder

  • "Popping," "clunking," or "catching" with shoulder movement, because the torn labrum has "loose ends" that are flipped or rolled within the shoulder joint during arm movement, and may even become trapped between the upper arm and shoulder blade

  • Shoulder weakness, often on one side

  • A sensation that your shoulder joint will pop out of place

How Is It Diagnosed?

Not all shoulder labral tears cause symptoms. In fact, when tears are small, many people function without any symptoms. However, healing may be difficult due to the lack of blood supply available to a torn labrum. The shoulder with a labral tear may pop or click without being painful, but if the tear progresses, it is likely to lead to pain and weakness.

If your physical therapist suspects that you have a labral tear, your physical therapist will review your health history and perform an examination that is designed to test the condition of the glenoid labrum. The tests will place your shoulder in positions that may recreate some of your symptoms, such as "popping," "clicking," or mild pain, to help your physical therapist determine whether your shoulder joint is unstable. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) also may be used to complete the diagnosis. Some labral tears may be difficult to diagnose with certainty without arthroscopic surgery. Your physical therapist may consult with an orthopedic surgeon if necessary.

How Can a Physical Therapist Help?

When shoulder labral tears cause minor symptoms but don’t cause shoulder instability, they usually are treated with physical therapy. Your physical therapist will educate you about positions and activities to avoid, and tailor a treatment plan for your recovery. Your treatment may include:

Manual therapy. Your physical therapist may provide gentle manual (hands-on) therapy to decrease your pain and begin to restore movement in the shoulder area.

Strengthening exercises. Improving the strength of the muscles of the shoulder will help you decrease the stresses placed on the torn labrum and allow for better healing. Your physical therapist may design rotation exercises that target the muscles of the shoulder joint, and shoulder-blade (scapular) exercises to provide stability to the shoulder joint itself.

Stretching exercises. An imbalance in the muscles or a decrease in flexibility can result in poor posture or excessive stress within the shoulder joint. Your physical therapist may prescribe stretching exercises—such as gentle stretches of the chest (pectoralis) muscles—to improve the function of the muscles surrounding the shoulder. Your physical therapist also may introduce middle-back (thoracic) stretches to allow your body to rotate or twist to the side, so the shoulder joint doesn’t have to stretch further to perform tasks, such as swinging a racquet or golf club.

Postural exercises. Your physical therapist will assess your posture, and teach you specific exercises to ensure your shoulders are positioned properly for daily tasks. A forward-head and rounded-shoulder posture puts the shoulders at risk for injury.

Education. Education is an important part of any physical therapy treatment plan. Your physical therapist will help you understand your injury, the reasons for modifying your activities, and the importance of doing your exercises to decrease your risk of future injury.

Home-exercise program. A home-exercise program is an important companion to treatment in the physical therapy clinic. Your physical therapist will identify the stretching and strengthening exercises that will help you steadily improve your shoulder function and meet your work, home, and activity goals.

Following Surgery

In more severe cases, when conservative treatments are unable to completely relieve the symptoms of a labral tear, surgery may be required to reattach the torn labrum. Following surgery, your physical therapist will design a treatment program based on your specific needs and goals, and work with you to help you safely return to your daily activities.

A surgically repaired labrum takes 9 to 12 months to completely heal. Immediately following surgery, your physical therapist will teach you ways to avoid putting excessive stress or strain on the repaired labrum.

As the labrum heals, your physical therapist will introduce resistance and strengthening exercises, such as those listed above, to your treatment plan, to address your specific needs, and help you slowly and safely return to performing daily tasks that require force or lifting. Your physical therapist is trained to gradually introduce movements in a safe manner to allow you to return to your usual activities without re-injuring the repaired tissues.

Can this Injury or Condition be Prevented?

Forceful activities performed with the arms raised overhead may increase the likelihood of developing a labral tear. To avoid putting excessive stress on the labrum, you need to develop strength in the muscles that surround the shoulder and scapula. Your physical therapist can:

  • Design exercises to help you strengthen your shoulder and shoulder blade muscles

  • Show you how to avoid potentially harmful positions

  • Train you to properly control your shoulder movement and modify your activities to reduce your risk of sustaining a labral injury

  • Provide posture education to help you avoid placing unnecessary forces on the shoulder

  • Help you increase your shoulder and middle-back flexibility


What Kind of Physical Therapist Do I Need?

All physical therapists are prepared through education and experience to treat patients who have a shoulder labral tear, but you may want to consider:

  • A physical therapist who is experienced in treating people with musculoskeletal problems. Some physical therapists have a practice with an orthopedic focus.

  • A physical therapist who is a board-certified clinical specialist or who completed a residency or fellowship in orthopedics physical therapy has advanced knowledge, experience, and skills that may apply to your condition.

You can find physical therapists who have these and other credentials by using Find a PT, the online tool built by the American Physical Therapy Association to help you search for physical therapists with specific clinical expertise in your geographic area.

General tips when you're looking for a physical therapist (or any other health care provider):

  • Get recommendations from family and friends or from other health care providers.

  • When you contact a physical therapy clinic for an appointment, ask about the physical therapists' experience in helping people with labral tears.

  • During your first visit with the physical therapist, be prepared to describe your symptoms in as much detail as possible, and say what makes your symptoms worse.

Further Reading

The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) believes that consumers should have access to information that could help them make health care decisions and also prepare them for their visit with their health care provider.

APTA has determined that the following articles provide some of the best scientific evidence for how to treat labral tears. The articles report recent research and give an overview of the standards of practice for treatment both in the United States and internationally. The article titles are linked either to a PubMed* abstract of the article or to free access of the full article, so that you can read it or print out a copy to bring with you to your health care provider.

Mazzocca AD, Cote MP, Solovyova O, et al. Traumatic shoulder instability involving anterior, inferior, and posterior labral injury: a prospective clinical evaluation of arthroscopic repair of 270° labral tears. Am J Sports Med. 2011;39:1687-1696.  Article Summary on PubMed.

Dodson CC, Altchek DW. SLAP lesions: an update on recognition and treatment. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2009;39:71-80. Article Summary on PubMed.

Keener JD, Brophy RH. Superior labral tears of the shoulder: pathogenesis, evaluation, and treatment. J Am Acad Orthop Surg. 2009;17:627-637. Article Summary on PubMed.

 *PubMed is a free online resource developed by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).  PubMed contains millions of citations to biomedical literature, including citations in the National Library of Medicine’s MEDLINE database.”

Authored by Charles Thigpen, PhD, PT, ATC and Lane Bailey, PT, DPT, CSCS. Reviewed by the MoveForwardPT.com editorial board.