Shoulder health is an integral aspect of maintaining an active and fulfilling lifestyle. Whether you’re an avid athlete, a fitness enthusiast, or simply someone navigating the journey of aging, understanding the intricacies of shoulder injuries is crucial. One such condition that warrants attention is the partial rotator cuff tear – a phenomenon that can arise both naturally as we age and as a consequence of the physical activities we engage in.

The rotator cuff, a group of four muscles and tendons that surround the shoulder joint, plays a pivotal role in the complex dance of movement and stability. While the body’s design is remarkable, it’s not immune to the wear and tear that time and activity can impose. In the population at large about 25% of people age 40-60 years old have partial thickness rotator cuff tears.

In this comprehensive guide, we delve into the world of partial rotator cuff tears, exploring their causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options. Whether you’re seeking insight to safeguard your shoulders against the passage of time or aiming to make informed choices about physical activity, join us as we unravel the nuances of this condition and empower you with the knowledge needed for a resilient shoulder health journey.

What is a rotator cuff?

The rotator cuff is a group of four muscles and their associated tendons located in the shoulder. These muscles and tendons work together to stabilize the shoulder joint and facilitate its range of motion. The four muscles that make up the rotator cuff are:

  1. Supraspinatus: This muscle helps in lifting the arm away from the body, particularly in the first 15 degrees of abduction.
  2. Infraspinatus: Responsible for external rotation of the arm, allowing you to rotate your arm away from your body.
  3. Teres Minor: This muscle also contributes to external rotation and helps stabilize the shoulder joint.
  4. Subscapularis: It’s the only muscle of the rotator cuff that aids in the internal rotation of the arm.

The tendons of these muscles converge and attach to the head of the humerus (upper arm bone) in a manner that forms a “cuff,” hence the name “rotator cuff.” The rotator cuff plays a crucial role in maintaining the stability and functionality of the shoulder joint, allowing various movements such as lifting, reaching, and rotating the arm. Injuries to the rotator cuff, such as tears or strains, can result in pain, limited range of motion, and a decrease in shoulder function.

what is the rotator cuff

Source: Susan Alexander via Your-Shoulder

What is a partial rotator cuff tear?

A partial rotator cuff tear, also known as partial thickness rotator cuff tear, is a type of shoulder injury that affects the tendons of the rotator cuff muscles in the shoulder. In a partial tear, only a portion of the tendon is damaged or torn, as opposed to a full-thickness tear where the entire tendon is severed.

What is the difference between a full rotator cuff tear and a partial rotator cuff tear?

The main difference between a full-thickness (full) rotator cuff tear and a partial rotator cuff tear lies in the extent of damage to the tendon of the rotator cuff muscles in the shoulder. Understanding the key differences between a partial vs full rotator cuff tear is essential for accurate diagnosis and effective treatment planning.

Partial Rotator Cuff Tear:

  • In a partial tear, only a portion of the tendon is damaged or torn.
  • The tear does not extend completely through the entire thickness of the tendon.
  • Some fibers of the tendon are intact, while others are disrupted.
  • Symptoms can vary widely, from mild pain and limited movement to more significant discomfort and weakness.
  • Treatment may involve rest, physical therapy, and other non-surgical approaches depending on the size of the tear and the individual’s symptoms.

Full-Thickness (Full) Rotator Cuff Tear:

  • In a full-thickness tear, the entire thickness of the tendon is torn, resulting in a complete separation.
  • This tear extends from the top to the bottom of the tendon.
  • The tear can significantly impact the function of the shoulder, causing more pronounced pain, weakness, and loss of movement.
  • Surgical intervention is often considered for full-thickness tears, especially if conservative treatments haven’t provided relief.
  • Surgery involves reattaching the torn tendon to the bone, and recovery can be more extensive than with partial tears.

It’s important to note that both partial and full-thickness rotator cuff tears can cause varying degrees of pain, weakness, and limitation in shoulder function. Diagnosis and appropriate treatment should be determined by a healthcare professional, who will consider factors such as the size of the tear, the individual’s overall health, and activity level. If you suspect you have a rotator cuff tear or are experiencing shoulder pain and discomfort, seek medical advice for accurate diagnosis and treatment options.
progression of rotator cuff tears

What causes a partial rotator cuff tear?

A partial rotator cuff tear can be caused by a variety of factors, including:

Overuse or Repetitive Strain:

Engaging in repetitive overhead motions, such as those in sports like tennis, volleyball, swimming, or throwing, can gradually wear down the rotator cuff tendons over time, leading to a partial tear.


As we age, the tendons in our body become less flexible and more prone to injury. The natural degeneration of tendon tissue over time can contribute to the development of partial tears.

Degenerative Changes:

Long-term wear and tear on the rotator cuff tendons due to age, use, or other factors can lead to degenerative changes in the tendons, making them more susceptible to tearing.


An acute injury or trauma to the shoulder, such as a fall, a direct blow, or a sudden forceful movement, can result in a partial tear of the rotator cuff tendons.

Poor Posture:

Prolonged poor posture, especially with shoulders rounded forward, can put excessive strain on the rotator cuff tendons, increasing the risk of tears.

Muscle Imbalance:

Weakness or imbalances in the muscles around the shoulder joint can lead to abnormal stress on the rotator cuff tendons, making them more vulnerable to tearing.

Lifting Heavy Objects:

Lifting heavy objects with poor form or using the shoulder muscles in an incorrect way can cause strain on the rotator cuff tendons and potentially lead to a tear.


Smoking can impair blood flow to the tendons, which may hinder their ability to heal and repair properly, increasing the risk of tears.

Certain Medical Conditions:

Conditions that affect tendon health, such as diabetes or autoimmune disorders, can contribute to the development of partial rotator cuff tears.


Some individuals may have a genetic predisposition to weaker tendon structures, making them more susceptible to tears.
At Idaho Sports Medicine Institute, we see this injury more commonly in the following sports:

  • Tennis: The repeated overhead serving motion in tennis can put a strain on the rotator cuff tendons, leading to potential tears over time.
  • Swimming: Freestyle, butterfly, and other swimming strokes involve continuous shoulder movement, which can contribute to wear and tear on the rotator cuff tendons.
  • Baseball/Softball: Pitchers in these sports subject their shoulders to repetitive and high-velocity throwing motions, increasing the risk of rotator cuff injuries.
  • Volleyball: Spiking the ball and serving in volleyball can involve overhead motions that might contribute to rotator cuff strain.
  • Weightlifting: Certain weightlifting exercises that involve lifting weights overhead, such as overhead presses, can strain the rotator cuff tendons.
  • Gymnastics: The demands of gymnastics routines, which often require support on the arms and shoulders, can put stress on the rotator cuff muscles.
  • Rockclimbing: It can often cause extreme pressure while in end ranges of motion, especially with your shoulders.
  • Rowing: The repetitive motion of rowing can put a strain on the shoulders, potentially leading to rotator cuff injuries.

throwing baseball rotator cuff injury

It’s important to note that a combination of factors can contribute to the development of a partial rotator cuff tear. Understanding the underlying causes and risk factors can help in preventing such injuries through proper posture, regular exercise, and appropriate techniques when engaging in activities that involve the shoulder joint. If you suspect you have a rotator cuff tear or are experiencing shoulder pain, seeking medical evaluation is essential for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment recommendations.

What are the symptoms of a partial rotator cuff tear?

The symptoms of a partial rotator cuff tear can vary depending on the size of the tear, the location, and the individual’s overall health. Common symptoms of a partial rotator cuff tear include:

  • Pain: Pain in the shoulder is one of the most common symptoms. The pain might be a dull ache that worsens with certain movements, especially those that involve lifting the arm or reaching overhead.
  • Weakness: Weakness in the shoulder and arm, particularly when attempting activities that require lifting or pushing, can be a sign of a partial tear affecting the muscle’s function.
  • Limited Range of Motion: A decrease in the shoulder’s range of motion, especially when raising the arm or rotating it, can be indicative of a partial tear restricting the joint’s movement.
  • Painful Movements: Specific movements or positions may trigger pain or discomfort, such as reaching across the body, reaching behind the back, or sleeping on the affected side.
  • Clicking or Popping Sensation: Some individuals with a partial tear might experience a clicking or popping sensation in the shoulder when moving it.
  • Night Pain: Pain or discomfort may intensify at night, particularly when lying on the affected side, leading to disrupted sleep.
  • Gradual Onset: Symptoms of a partial rotator cuff tear often develop gradually, especially if the tear results from overuse or wear and tear.

It’s important to note that not everyone with a partial rotator cuff tear will experience all of these symptoms. Additionally, some individuals with partial tears might not experience any symptoms at all, especially if the tear is small or not causing significant irritation to the surrounding tissues.

How can I diagnose a partial rotator cuff tear?

While we can provide you with some general guidance on identifying potential signs of a partial rotator cuff tear, it’s important to emphasize that self-diagnosis should never replace professional medical evaluation. The only way to definitively diagnose a partial rotator cuff tear is having a thorough assessment by a qualified medical professional performed. If you suspect you have a rotator cuff injury, it’s strongly recommended that you consult a specialist for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

Here are some steps you can take to assess whether you might have a partial rotator cuff tear, but remember that these are not a substitute for a professional evaluation:

Analyze Symptoms:

Pay attention to persistent shoulder pain, weakness, limited range of motion, or discomfort during certain movements. Note if the pain worsens with activities like lifting, reaching, or sleeping on the affected side.

Consider Onset:

If your symptoms developed gradually over time or after a specific activity that involved shoulder strain, this could be a potential indicator.

Check for Clicking or Popping:

If you experience clicking or popping sensations in your shoulder when moving it, this might suggest an issue with the rotator cuff.

Assess Night Pain:

If you notice that your shoulder pain intensifies at night, especially when lying on the affected side, this could be a sign of a partial tear.

Monitor Changes:

Keep an eye on any changes in your shoulder’s appearance or function, such as muscle wasting or visible deformities.

While these steps might give you some insight into the possibility of a partial rotator cuff tear, it’s crucial to consult a medical professional for a proper diagnosis. The best healthcare professional to consult is an orthopedic specialist or a sports medicine doctor. They have expertise in diagnosing and treating musculoskeletal injuries and can perform a comprehensive evaluation that may include:

  • Physical Examination: Assessing range of motion, strength, and pinpointing areas of tenderness or pain.
  • Imaging: Ordering and interpreting imaging tests such as X-rays or MRI scans to visualize the extent of the injury.
  • Medical History: Discussing your symptoms, medical history, and any relevant activities or events leading up to the injury.

rotator cuff tear imaging

Remember, self-diagnosis can lead to misunderstandings and delay in receiving appropriate treatment. Seeking a specialist’s opinion will ensure an accurate diagnosis and a tailored treatment plan based on your unique situation. If you’re experiencing symptoms suggestive of a partial rotator cuff tear, schedule an appointment with a qualified healthcare professional as soon as possible.

What is the treatment for a partial rotator cuff tear?

The treatment for a partial rotator cuff tear depends on various factors including the size of the tear, the individual’s age, activity level, and overall health. Treatment options can range from conservative approaches to surgical intervention. It’s essential to consult a medical professional to determine the most appropriate treatment plan for your specific condition. Here are some potential treatment options:

1.) Conservative Treatment:

  • Rest: Avoiding activities that exacerbate pain and strain on the shoulder can promote healing.
  • Physical Therapy: A physical therapist can guide you through exercises to improve shoulder strength, flexibility, and overall function.
  • Pain Management: Over-the-counter or prescription pain medications can help manage pain and inflammation.
  • Activity Modification: Temporarily modifying activities that involve overhead motions or heavy lifting can alleviate stress on the shoulder.

2.) Corticosteroid Injections:

  • In some cases, corticosteroid injections may be administered to reduce inflammation and provide temporary pain relief.

3.) Platelet-Rich Plasma (PRP) Therapy:

  • PRP therapy involves injecting concentrated platelets from your own blood into the injured area to promote healing and reduce inflammation.

4.) Biological Augmentation:

  • This involves using biologically active substances or patches to enhance the body’s natural healing process and strengthen the tendon.

5.) Surgical Intervention:

  • If conservative methods don’t provide relief or if the tear is large, surgery might be considered. Surgical options include:
    • Arthroscopic Repair: Minimally invasive surgery where the torn tendon is reattached to the bone using small incisions and specialized tools.
    • Open Repair: Traditional surgical approach involving a larger incision to access and repair the torn tendon.
    • Partial Repair: In some cases, if the tear is not fully repairable, the surgeon may trim the damaged portion of the tendon.

The decision regarding surgical intervention will depend on various factors, including the severity of the tear, the individual’s goals, and the surgeon’s recommendation.

It’s important to note that early diagnosis and appropriate treatment can significantly impact the outcome of a partial rotator cuff tear. Ignoring the symptoms or delaying treatment could lead to further progression of the tear and increased pain. Consulting an orthopedic specialist or a sports medicine doctor is crucial for receiving a proper evaluation, accurate diagnosis, and a personalized treatment plan tailored to your needs.

Will I need surgery for a partial rotator cuff tear?

In many cases, a partial rotator cuff tear can be effectively managed without the need for surgical intervention. Conservative treatments are often the first line of approach, and they can yield positive results for individuals with smaller or less severe partial tears. Here’s why a partial tear might not necessarily require surgery:

  • Size and Location: The size and location of the tear play a significant role in determining the appropriate treatment. If the tear is small and not causing significant disruption to the shoulder’s function, conservative methods may be sufficient.
  • Healing Potential: Partial tears have the potential to heal on their own, especially if the surrounding tissues are healthy and well-conditioned. Conservative treatments can support the body’s natural healing process.
  • Non-Surgical Options: Non-surgical treatments, such as rest, physical therapy, and medications, can effectively manage pain, reduce inflammation, and improve shoulder strength and flexibility.
  • Functional Improvement: Many individuals with partial tears can experience improved shoulder function and reduced pain through targeted exercises and physical therapy.
  • Avoiding Risks: Surgery, while effective in many cases, carries risks such as infection, anesthesia complications, and longer recovery times. Avoiding surgery when possible can reduce these risks.
  • Individual Factors: Age, activity level, overall health, and personal preferences also play a role in determining the most appropriate treatment. Some individuals may prefer to explore non-surgical options before considering surgery.
  • Monitoring Progress: Medical professionals will monitor your progress and adjust the treatment plan as needed. If conservative methods show improvement, surgery may not be necessary.

It’s important to remember that while surgery is a valuable option for those with larger or more severe tears, it’s not the only solution. Partial rotator cuff tears are not a one-size-fits-all condition, and each case should be evaluated individually. Consulting a medical professional is essential for proper diagnosis and the development of a personalized treatment plan that suits your specific needs and circumstances. If you suspect you have a partial rotator cuff tear, seeking early medical attention will help you make informed decisions about your treatment pathway.

What is the recovery time for a partial rotator cuff tear?

The recovery time for a partial rotator cuff tear can vary widely based on factors such as the size and location of the tear, the treatment approach chosen, the individual’s overall health, and their commitment to rehabilitation. While we can provide a general timeline, it’s important to note that this is a rough estimate and your actual recovery time may differ.

Conservative Treatment (Non-Surgical):

  • Recovery for smaller tears managed conservatively may take around 6 to 12 weeks.
  • Physical therapy usually begins early in the recovery process to improve shoulder strength, flexibility, and overall function.
  • Return to sports can be considered after about 3 to 6 months, depending on progress.

Partial Rotator Cuff Tear Surgery:

  • Recovery after arthroscopic repair surgery typically involves several phases:
  • Immediate Post-Surgery: A period of immobilization and rest for a few weeks to allow the repair to heal.
  • Early Rehabilitation: Physical therapy begins after the immobilization phase to gradually restore range of motion and strength. This phase might last for several weeks.
  • Intermediate Phase: Over the next few months, exercises focus on gradually increasing shoulder strength and stability.
  • Final Phase: Full recovery can take around 6 to 9 months or longer, with a gradual return to sports and other activities.

It’s important to follow your healthcare provider’s recommendations closely during the recovery period. Returning to sports too early can increase the risk of re-injury and prolong the recovery process.

When it comes to taking time off from sports, it’s best to listen to your body and adhere to your healthcare provider’s guidance. Generally, you should avoid engaging in sports that involve the use of your affected shoulder until you have regained sufficient strength, range of motion, and stability. This might mean refraining from sports for at least 3 to 6 months, depending on your progress and the severity of the tear.

Always prioritize your recovery and follow the advice of your medical team. Every individual’s situation is unique, so consulting with your orthopedic specialist or physical therapist is crucial for determining the most appropriate time to return to sports activities.

What are exercises for a partial rotator cuff tear?

Exercises for a partial rotator cuff tear should be done under the guidance of a qualified healthcare professional, such as a physical therapist or an orthopedic specialist. They can tailor exercises to your specific condition, ensuring you perform them safely and effectively. Below are some general examples of exercises that might be included in a rehabilitation program for a partial rotator cuff tear. However, it’s important to consult a medical professional before starting any exercise regimen:

Pendulum Exercises:

Gentle swinging motions of the arm to promote blood flow and maintain mobility.

Passive Range of Motion (PROM) Exercises:

The therapist gently moves your arm through its range of motion to prevent stiffness.

Active-Assisted Range of Motion Exercises:

You use your non-injured arm or assistance from a pulley to gently guide the injured arm through controlled movements.

Isometric Exercises:

Contracting the shoulder muscles without moving the joint. For example, pressing the back of your hand against a wall.

External Rotation with Resistance Band:

Attach a resistance band to a doorknob and perform controlled external rotation movements to strengthen the rotator cuff.

Scapular Retraction:

Squeezing your shoulder blades together to strengthen the muscles that stabilize the shoulder joint.

Wall Angels:

Standing against a wall, move your arms up and down in a snow-angel motion while maintaining contact with the wall.

Codman’s Pendulum Exercises:

Gently lean over a table and use your unaffected arm to support your body weight while letting your injured arm hang down. Swing it gently in circles or back and forth.

Shoulder Blade Squeezes:

Sit or stand with good posture and squeeze your shoulder blades together, holding for a few seconds before releasing.

rotator cuff inury doctor patient

The timing of implementing these exercises depends on the severity of the tear and your healthcare provider’s recommendations. In the initial stages, the focus might be on gentle range of motion exercises and pain management. As you progress, your exercises will likely become more focused on strengthening the shoulder muscles and improving overall function.
Remember, the key to a successful recovery is consistency, patience, and proper guidance. Working with a physical therapist ensures that your exercises are appropriate for your condition and are being performed correctly to promote healing and prevent further injury.

How can I prevent partial rotator cuff tears?

Preventing partial rotator cuff tears as you age involves a combination of maintaining shoulder health, adopting a healthy lifestyle, and being mindful of your activities. Here are some steps you can take to help prevent partial rotator cuff tears:

  1. Regular Exercise: Engage in a well-rounded fitness routine that includes strength training, flexibility exercises, and cardiovascular activities. Strengthening the muscles around the shoulder joint can provide better support and stability.
  2. Proper Technique: When participating in sports or activities that involve shoulder movements, use proper form and technique to avoid unnecessary strain on the rotator cuff.
  3. Warm-Up and Cool-Down: Always warm up your shoulder muscles before engaging in physical activities and perform gentle stretches afterward to maintain flexibility.
  4. Avoid Overuse: Be mindful of repetitive overhead movements, especially if you’re not conditioned for them. Allow your shoulder muscles time to recover between activities.
  5. Rest and Recovery: Ensure you’re getting enough rest and recovery between workouts and activities to give your muscles and tendons time to heal and adapt.
  6. Maintain a Healthy Weight: Excess body weight can put additional stress on your joints, including the shoulders. Maintaining a healthy weight can reduce the strain on your rotator cuff.
  7. Proper Posture: Maintain good posture to avoid unnecessary stress on your shoulders. Avoid slouching and rounded shoulders, which can contribute to shoulder issues.
  8. Stay Hydrated: Proper hydration helps keep tendons and muscles lubricated and can contribute to overall joint health.
  9. Nutrition: Consume a balanced diet rich in nutrients that support joint health, such as omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and collagen.
  10. Avoid Smoking: Smoking can negatively impact blood flow to the tendons and impair their ability to heal, increasing the risk of injuries like partial tears.

Remember that prevention is a lifelong process. While you can’t completely eliminate the risk of injuries, taking proactive steps to care for your shoulder health can significantly reduce the likelihood of developing partial rotator cuff tears as you age. If you have specific concerns or questions, consulting with a healthcare professional or physical therapist can provide tailored advice based on your individual needs.

Discover Specialized Care at ISMI: Your Path to Shoulder Health

If you’re in the Boise area and find yourself facing the challenges of a partial rotator cuff tear, you don’t have to navigate this journey alone. The Idaho Sports Medicine Institute (ISMI) is here to provide you with expert diagnosis, personalized treatment plans, and a supportive team dedicated to your shoulder health.

Our experienced specialists at ISMI understand the complexities of shoulder injuries and are equipped with the latest advancements in diagnostics and treatments. Whether you’re an athlete seeking to regain peak performance or an individual aiming to preserve your shoulder’s functionality, ISMI is your partner in this transformative journey.

Contact us today to schedule a consultation and take the first step towards healing and renewed strength. Your shoulders deserve the best care, and ISMI is committed to helping you achieve your goals with confidence and vitality. Let us be a part of your story – because your shoulder health matters.