What is a rotator cuff tear?

A rotator cuff tear is a common shoulder injury, which can cause considerable discomfort and pain. The rotator cuff is made up of muscles and tendons that join at the top of the upper arm bone (humerus). This group of muscles and tendons allow the arm to move in different directions. When a rotator cuff tendon tears, the tendon pulls away from the bone, damaging the soft tissue or, in some cases, splitting the soft tissue completely. A torn rotator cuff will weaken the shoulder, and make certain movements of the arm difficult.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of a rotator cuff tear include pain, tenderness or weakness when lifting or rotating the arm, depending on how serious the injury is. An acute tear can cause intense pain, while tears that have developed over time can cause mild pain or discomfort that occurs only when lifting the arm. Other symptoms include a grinding sound when moving the shoulder, and pain when lying on one’s side.

What causes it?

Rotator cuff tears can be caused by falling onto the shoulder or outstretched arm, or by lifting something that is too heavy.

Rotator cuff tears can also be caused by degeneration and general wear and tear on the tendons that occurs over time. Activities that place repetitive stress on the shoulder (such as weightlifting, tennis, squash and swimming) may cause sport injuries and can increase the risk of a tear. Any routine action that places stress on the tendons can cause overuse. Other factors include ageing and shoulder impingement.

How can it be treated?

In order to properly diagnose a rotator cuff tear, your orthopedic surgeon will examine your shoulder for any tenderness, and move your arm in different directions to determine the cause of pain. He will rule out other potential conditions such as arthritis before proceeding. Your doctor may also use X-rays , ultrasound or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to check for abnormalities.

It is possible to receive non-surgical treatment options such as rest (particularly in the case of sport injuries), sports physiotherapy, shoulder exercises, the use of anti-inflammatory medication and cortisone injections. However, without shoulder surgery, the size of the tear can increase over time, there will be no improvement in strength, and physical activity may need to be limited.

If your injury does not improve with non-surgical treatment, it may be necessary to undergo surgery.

If that is the case Dr Pirjol will perform surgery according to the latest and most successful techniques, such as the arthroscopic suture bridge technique.


Dr Gabriel Pirjol is based at St Augustine’s Hospital in Durban and also consults and operates from Gateway Hospital in Umhlanga, Westville Hospital and Malvern Medicross.


Telephone : +27 31 202 5463

Email :

Address : Suite 24 Chelmsford Medical Centre
St Augustine's Hospital
107 J B Marks Road
Berea, 4001