Torn Rotator Cuff – What Does It Mean?

by | May 31, 2023

Understanding The Care Path Through Physiotherapy And What It Means For You. How can Physiotherapy help with a torn rotator cuff problem?

Physiotherapy plays a crucial role in the rehabilitation of rotator cuff tears, helping individuals regain strength, restore range of motion, and improve shoulder function. Shoulder injuries account for a large portion of physiotherapy visits and a rotator cuff tear may be the reason for your appointment. Causes of rotator cuff injuries include sudden and unexpected loads above the supply of the cuff (generally happens in a younger population) or repetitive overload (a common cause in older populations). Symptoms of rotator cuff tears may include: pain, limited range of motion, a reduced ability to lift and accomplish activities of daily living, and more. In this blog post, we will explore the typical care path in physiotherapy specifically tailored to rotator cuff injuries. By understanding the stages of treatment, the techniques utilized, and the importance of evidence-based practices – you can have a clear roadmap towards optimal recovery.

Initial Assessment and Evaluation

The first step in the physiotherapy care pathway for rotator cuff tears is the initial assessment and evaluation. A rotator cuff tear may be confirmed with an MRI and the quality of this tear (whether partial tear or complete) can be visualized with the use of imaging. This is more relevant if the condition may require surgery. However, data suggests that conservative care for partial thickness tears can be equally as effective as surgical management. Either way a physiotherapist will conduct a comprehensive evaluation to gather information about your injury, medical history, symptoms, and functional limitations. This assessment helps in developing an individualized treatment plan.

The assessment may involve physical exam, range of motion testing, strength assessment, shoulder stability evaluation, and special tests specific to rotator cuff tears. The physiotherapist may also use subjective questionnaires and outcome measures to assess pain and disability levels, functional abilities, and overall well-being.

This thorough assessment helps identify common symptoms, determine the severity and specific characteristics of the torn tendon, identify contributing factors, and establish baseline measurements for tracking progress throughout the treatment.

Goal Setting and Treatment Planning

Once the assessment is complete, the physiotherapist collaborates with you to set goals and develop an individualized treatment plan. The treatment plan outlines the best treatment options including: specific interventions, techniques, and exercises that will be used to address your injury and achieve the desired outcomes.

The goals set during this stage typically include reducing pain, improving range of motion, restoring strength and stability, and returning to functional activities. These goals should be centred around your joy and provide a clear direction for your recovery.

Treatment options may involve a combination of evidence-based interventions, including therapeutic exercises, manual therapy techniques, and education regarding self-management strategies.

Active Rehabilitation and Therapeutic Exercises

Active rehabilitation through therapeutic exercises is a cornerstone of physiotherapy for rotator cuff tendon injuries including a tear of the rotator cuff. These exercises aim to restore strength, flexibility, and stability in the shoulder joint, promote tissue healing, and return to activities of daily living.

The rotator cuff is a group of four muscles and tendons that hold the humerus (upper arm bone) centred in the joint; working together to provide stability while you move the shoulder. Injuries to the tendons and muscles of the rotator cuff are common shoulder complaints, however partial or complete tears are relatively uncommon with a rate of 4% in patients under 50. This increases to 25% over the age of 60. When one suffers partial-thickness tears, full-thickness tear or a complete rotator cuff tear your physiotherapist will guide you through a series of exercises tailored to your specific goals and present limitations. Whether a partial or complete tear, this group of muscles and tendons responds quite favourably to progressive exercise. Initially, the focus may be on pain management, gentle range of motion exercises, and scapular (shoulder blade) stabilization. As your condition progresses, the exercises will gradually advance to include strengthening exercises targeting the rotator cuff muscles and the surrounding shoulder girdle muscles.

Therapeutic exercises for shoulder injuries may include external and internal rotation exercises, shoulder abduction and adduction exercises, scapular retraction exercises, and shoulder stabilization exercises. As you improve, these can progress to compound lifts such as: the bench press, overhead press, power clean and pull-ups. The physiotherapist will provide detailed instructions on the correct technique, frequency, and intensity of each exercise. They will also monitor your progress, provide feedback, and modify the exercises as needed to ensure ongoing improvement.

Research consistently supports the effectiveness of therapeutic exercises in the management of rotator cuff tears. A systematic review published in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy concluded that exercise-based interventions, including specific rotator cuff exercises, can lead to improved pain, function, and strength in individuals with rotator cuff tears.

Manual Therapy Techniques

Manual therapy techniques are an integral part of physiotherapy for shoulder pain, post rotator cuff surgery or in the acute stages of a torn rotator cuff. These techniques aim to reduce pain, improve joint mobility, and optimize tissue healing.

Our Victoria based physiotherapists may employ various manual therapy techniques, including:

  1. Soft tissue mobilization: This technique involves applying pressure and gentle movements to the soft tissues around the shoulder, such as muscles, tendons, and ligaments, to reduce muscle tension, alleviate pain, and improve tissue flexibility.
  2. Joint mobilization: This technique focuses on restoring normal joint mechanics and mobility by applying controlled movements to the shoulder joint. It can help reduce stiffness, improve range of motion, and enhance shoulder function.
  3. Manual stretching: The physiotherapist may move your shoulder to perform specific manual stretching techniques to target tight shoulder muscles and tendons of the rotator cuff and improve flexibility. These stretches aim to maintain or restore the optimal length-tension relationship of the muscles around the shoulder joint.

The use of manual therapy techniques should be individualized based on your specific condition, preferences, and response to treatment.

Gradual Return to Functional Activities

As you progress through the care path, your physiotherapist will guide you towards a gradual return to functional activities. This stage focuses on restoring the strength, stability, and mobility required for your specific daily and recreational activities.

Our physiotherapists at South Island Physiotherapy will design a personalized exercise program that mimics the demands of your functional activities, such as reaching, lifting, and overhead movements. This program may include sport-specific exercises, work-specific movements, and activities aimed at improving proprioception and coordination of the arm and shoulder.

Your physiotherapist will provide guidance on proper body mechanics, ergonomic modifications, and strategies to prevent re-injury. They will also emphasize the importance of ongoing self-management strategies, such as home exercises, stretching routines, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle to improve recovery time and make a full recovery without surgery.


Physiotherapy for rotator cuff tears involves a systematic approach tailored to your specific needs. Through initial assessment and evaluation, goal setting, active rehabilitation exercises, manual therapy techniques, and a gradual return to functional activities, physiotherapy aims to reduce pain, restore mobility, resolve shoulder weakness, and restore overall shoulder movements and function, getting you back to your best life.

It is essential to work closely with a qualified physiotherapist like the ones at South Island Physiotherapy who utilizes evidence-based practices to ensure optimal, and durable outcomes. By actively participating in your treatment plan and following the guidance of your physiotherapist, you can pave the way towards a successful and durable recovery.


Rotator Cuff Tear FAQs


What is a rotator cuff tear?

A rotator cuff tear is a tear of the rotator cuff tendon, which is a group of muscles and tendons that connect the shoulder blade to the arm bone.

What causes a rotator cuff tear?

A rotator cuff tear may be caused by injury, degeneration of the tendon due to aging, or repetitive overhead activities such as pitching or throwing. It is a common cause of shoulder pain.

What are the symptoms of a rotator cuff tear?

The symptoms of a rotator cuff tear may include pain in the shoulder, weakness in the arm, and difficulty with range of motion of the shoulder. A partial tear may not cause as much pain or weakness as a full-thickness tear.

How is a rotator cuff tear diagnosed?

A rotator cuff tear may be diagnosed through a physical exam and an MRI to confirm the diagnosis.

What are the treatment options for a rotator cuff tear?

The treatment for a rotator cuff tear may depend on the severity of the tear. Research has consistently shown that most rotator cuff injuries respond well to conservative care such as physiotherapy.

Do all rotator cuff tears need surgery?

No, not all rotator cuff tears need surgery. The majority of rotator cuff injuries have been shown to improve through conservative management such as physiotherapy.

How long does it take to recover from a rotator cuff injury

The timelines for recovering from a rotator cuff injury are specific to the individual. Following an initial assessment, your physiotherapist should be able to provide you with an expected timeline for healing and recovery.

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