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What is a Partial Rotator Cuff Tear?

A partial rotator cuff tear is an incomplete tear that involves damage to a part of the tendon. The tear can be at the top, bottom or inner side of the tendon.

A rotator cuff is a group of 4 muscles in the shoulder joint that include the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis. These muscles originate in the scapula and attach to the head of the humerus through tendons. The rotator cuff forms a sleeve around the humeral head and glenoid cavity, providing stability to the shoulder joint while enabling a wide range of movements. Rotator cuff tears can be complete where the tendon separates from the bone.


A partial rotator cuff tear is asymptomatic in many people. Some people may experience symptoms such as:

  • Pain in the shoulder region and upper arm that is exacerbated by movement of the arm
  • Pain while sleeping on your affected arm or lifting heavy objects over the shoulder level
  • Stiffening and weakness of the arm


Aging is the most common cause of a partial rotator cuff tear. Other causes can include overhead activities, sports or a fall on an outstretched arm.


Your doctor will perform specific movements of your shoulder to identify the weakness of the rotator cuff muscles. Diminished strength may indicate a tendon tear. X-rays will be ordered to identify any bony abnormalities that might be irritating the rotator cuff. Ultrasound test or MRI confirms the diagnosis. 


Partial rotator cuff tears can be often treated without surgery. Treatment options include:

  • Taking anti-inflammatory medications to manage pain
  • Avoiding activities that trigger symptoms
  • Physical therapy to regain strength and mobility
  • Injection of a steroid (cortisone) and a local anesthetic in the subacromial space of the affected shoulder to relieve inflammation and pain

Partial rotator cuff tears that do not respond to non-surgical methods may require surgery. Miniature surgical instruments are used to remove the damaged part of the tendon and debride any injured surrounding tissue. Ocasionally, the partial tear may need to be converted to a complete tear and repaired down to bone.


Partial rotator cuff tears can be prevented by:

  • Quitting the use of tobacco (smoking) and alcohol
  • Performing regular strengthening exercises for your shoulder
  • Maintaining good posture while sitting, standing or walking
  • Taking breaks while performing repetitive overhead activities

Switching sides often when carrying a heavy bag

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