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Physical Therapy for Rotator Cuff – Information, Exercises, and More

After suffering from a throbbing shoulder, struggling to get through your weekly tennis match, and more sleepless nights than you’d care to remember … you finally have a diagnosis for your pain.

It’s a rotator cuff injury. 

Your doctor said surgery isn’t off the table, but she’d like you to try physical therapy first.

Did you think physical therapy was only for serious athletes or people recovering from major surgery?

Not the case.

Physical therapy can help everyone, including those with rotator cuff pain. 

This article takes you through specific rotator cuff injuries and exactly what kind of exercises you can expect during physical therapy.

What is Rotator Cuff Pain?

First things first. What is the rotator cuff?

Your rotator cuff is a group of four muscles and tendons that stabilize your shoulder joint and allow you to lift and rotate your arms.

If you have a rotator cuff injury, you’ll feel pain in your shoulder

What Causes Rotator Cuff Pain?

There are two main causes of rotator cuff pain:

  • Traumatic shoulder injury – This type of injury is most often caused by falling directly on the shoulder or taking a direct blow to the shoulder.
  • Degeneration/overuse – Most rotator cuff tears are a result of wear and tear in the shoulder joint over time.

Rotator Cuff Injuries

Rotator cuff injuries are quite common. Each year, almost 2 million people in the U.S. visit their doctors because of a rotator cuff issue.

Common injuries include:

  • Tendinitis
  • Bursitis
  • Rotator cuff strain
  • Rotator cuff tear

Rotator Cuff Injury Symptoms

Symptoms of a rotator cuff injury can include:

  • A dull ache deep in the shoulder
  • Pain that disturbs sleep, especially when laying on the injured shoulder
  • Difficulty raising arms or decreased range of motion
  • Arm weakness

If you’re experiencing shoulder pain, don’t try and self-diagnose or wait it out to see if the pain goes away on its own. If you have a rotator cuff injury and continue to use it despite the pain, you will likely cause further damage.

Rotator Cuff Treatment

Treatment for rotator cuff injuries depends on the severity of the injury. 

Some shoulder and rotator cuff pain goes away with self-treatment including: 

  • Rest
  • Ice
  • Over-the-counter pain relievers

If rest isn’t cutting it, you have a severe rotator cuff injury, or if you have a job that requires lifting heavy objects or raising your arms overhead, your doctor may advise you to move on to more aggressive treatments.

These treatment options may include:

  • Physical therapy
  • Injections; or 
  • Surgery

Physical Therapy

If rest and over-the-counter medications aren’t providing pain relief, physical therapy is often your best bet. 

Even if you have a torn rotator cuff, physical therapy may help you avoid surgery.

A certified physical therapist will help you:

  • Pinpoint the location of the rotator cuff injury.
  • Relieve pain through targeted stretches and exercises.
  • Increase shoulder flexibility and strength. 
  • Restore range of motion to the shoulder and arm.


If pain is interfering with your daily activities, sleep, or physical therapy your doctor might recommend a steroid injection into your shoulder joint. 

While these shots can relieve pain temporarily, they aren’t a long term solution. 

Continued injections can weaken the tendon and may lower the success of surgery if it is needed.


Surgery may be recommended if:

  • Your pain and other symptoms have lasted 6-12 months.
  • You have a large rotator cuff tear (more than 3 cm). 
  • You have significant weakness and loss of arm and shoulder movement.
  • Your rotator cuff tear was caused by acute injury (fall, direct blow to the shoulder, etc.).
  • You use your arms overhead frequently for work or sports.

A rotator cuff surgery involves reattaching your tendon to the head of the humerus (upper arm bone). However, other shoulder problems can be addressed and fixed by your surgeon simultaneously. 

These can include:

  • Biceps tendon tears
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Bone spurs
  • Soft tissue tears

Rotator Cuff Physical Therapy – Will PT Help?

Not only will physical therapy help, but physical therapy is also the most recommended treatment for rotator cuff injuries. 

Because it works.

Many people with rotator cuff pain and injuries can find relief, manage their symptoms, and prevent future pain when they return to activities after physical therapy. 

Highly trained physical therapists can create an exercise routine that helps to improve range-of-motion, flexibility, and strength of the muscles surrounding the shoulder joint.

Rotator Cuff Physical Therapy After Surgery

Physical therapy is an essential recovery component following rotator cuff surgery. 

The first few weeks post-op, your shoulder is at the greatest risk of reinjury. 

During this time you:

  • Will wear a sling to limit shoulder motion.
  • May need assistance performing everyday tasks like bathing or getting dressed.

In this first phase following surgery your physical therapist will:

  • Teach you range-of-motion and isometric strengthening exercises to perform on your own at home while you recover.
  • Provide manual therapy (hands-on treatment) such as light massage and targeted stretches.
  • Advise you on pain management options.

When it is safe to do so, your physical therapist will add range-of-motion and strengthening exercises to your program designed to get you comfortably back in action and back to your normal activities. 

Best Rotator Cuff Exercises

While much of your recovery will happen with your physical therapist, to achieve the best possible results from your treatment you’ll need to keep up the work on your own.

Here are a few examples of rotator cuff physical therapy exercises you can do at home:

  • Crossover arm stretch
  • Side-lying external rotation
  • Pendulum
  • High-to-low rows

If you’re unfamiliar with these exercises, don’t worry! Your physical therapist will go through each stretch and exercise with you step-by-step.

How In Motion O.C. Can Help With Rotator Cuff Pain

While rotator cuff pain may be new to you, it’s not new to the health professionals at In Motion O.C. 

Rotator cuff injuries and shoulder pain are common and affect 18-26% of adults at any given time.

Our physical therapists and fitness coaches work with clients suffering from rotator cuff pain every single day—helping them:

  • Relieve pain
  • Regain strength
  • Get back to their daily activities

Wouldn’t you like to sleep comfortably through the night or get through a golf game or tennis match without wincing in pain? 

In Motion O.C., Yelp’s #1 rated Physical Therapy Clinic in the country, can help make that a reality.

*This information about physical therapy for rotator cuff was reviewed by Dr Natalie Thomas, PT, DPT. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us here.

In Motion O.C.