How to Know If a Rotator Cuff Is Torn

By Isaiah David

golfer hits from tee box
The rotator cuff is a complex system of tendons and muscles that joins your upper arm bone ball joint, your joint socket and your shoulder blade. This system is extremely flexible, with a greater range of motion than any other joint in the whole body. Unfortunately, is is also quite susceptible to injury. Activities like lifting, throwing a ball and playing golf can tear the rotator cuff by gradually wearing it down, while falling can cause an injury from sudden trauma.


Difficulty: Moderate
  1. Identify if you experience persistent shoulder pain or tenderness. This pain can gradually increase, or can set in suddenly. Usually, rotator cuff discomfort is worse when reaching up or back with the affected arm, when doing something that stresses the shoulder such as lifting heavy objects, and when leaning on the elbow or sleeping on the shoulder.
  2. Observe any strange sounds or feelings which might indicate a rotator cuff tear. Some rotator cuff injuries cause the shoulder to pop or click when it moves. Other injuries make the joint feel stiff or stuck when it moves past certain points. Neither of these symptoms are universal, but both are possible signs of rotator tears.
  3. Watch out for feelings of weakness. It may be difficult to move your arm in certain directions, or your arm may feel weak in general. Like other rotator cuff symptoms, this weakness can gradually increase or it can start quite suddenly.
  4. Take note of stiffness or swelling around the shoulder. When the rotator cuff or any other part of the body is injured, the body attempts to protect the injury site by swelling up and immobilizing the injury. Taken together with other signs, this is a good indication that your rotator cuff may be torn.
  5. Know when to see a doctor. If you have severe pain, if you can't move your arm in one or more directions, or if you have been in pain for more than a week, you should go see a doctor immediately. You could have a severe rotator cuff tear that requires surgery.

Tips & Warnings

  • If you think you may have a rotator cuff injury, you should try to see a doctor sooner rather than later. Otherwise, you can do great damage to your rotator cuff over the long run.

About the Author

Isaiah David is a freelance writer and musician living in Portland, Ore. He has nearly five years' experience as a professional writer and has been published on various online outlets. He holds a degree in creative writing from the University of Michigan.