Torn arm muscle, rotator cuff injury - what has your experience been?
February 4, 2014 11:12 AM   Subscribe

I really hurt my arm. I am going to the doctor, but I'm curious about people's general experiences with this type of injury, treatments, length of recovery, and general speculation about just what I did to myself, since it seems like I did several different things at once.

Two months ago I did a superman over the handlebars of my bike and landed on my extended right arm/shoulder. Nothing hurt initially, but in the next couple of days my upper arm and the top of my shoulder hurt a lot, especially when I was standing. There was no significant swelling or bruising and I am confident that I didn't actually break anything. I told myself at the time that if it hadn't improved a lot in a week I'd assume something serious was wrong and go to the doctor. Well, it improved a lot....and now it's plateaued, and it's still bad enough to cause me problems.

Here are my current symptoms:

I have a full range of motion but with upper arm pain. The top of my shoulder hurts if I lean on my right arm. The muscles around my right shoulderblade are all knotted up and sore all the time (when they never used to be - my left is my wonky shoulder). There's a spot on the outside of my upper arm about 2 inches in diameter which just....really hurts a lot, a lot of the time. If I am standing or walking for a long period, my arm's own weight makes it hurt. I can only sleep in some positions because otherwise my arm hurts and wakes me up.

So what is likely to happen when I go to the doctor? What are some things that might be wrong? What experience have you had with treatment for upper arm/shoulder injuries?

Actually, if you have any recommendations for at-home symptom treatment prior to seeing the doctor, that would be great too.
posted by Frowner to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Nobody is going to suggest an at-home treatment for a vague, undiagnosed arm injury because the wrong random guess can easily make things worse rather than better. As you have correctly surmised, this is something you need to see a doctor for. I would guess that what will happen when you go in will be diagnostic imaging -- an MRI or an ultrasound or both to see if there are tears, cracks or chips, which will in turn help to diagnose your specific injury or rule specific diagnoses out.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:29 AM on February 4, 2014

I got a small tear my supraspinatus skiing about a year ago. I went thru 3 months of pretty easy and not painful physical therapy and have all my strength back. It only huts a little in a very specific (but not ever used) position, but it is lessening every day.

You'll probably get a special MRI with an injection, called an Arthogram, which will show exactly where the tear is. Then you'll go to PT and it will get better. Or it will be totally torn and youll get surgery and start another 8 weeks of recovery.

PT is REALLY important, and they want to help you fix this.
posted by bensherman at 11:30 AM on February 4, 2014

Response by poster: (Nobody is going to suggest an at-home treatment for a vague, undiagnosed arm injury

By "symptom treatment" I mean recommendations for pain or good ways to rest or safely stretch etc the arm, not "make it get better" - just to clarify)
posted by Frowner at 11:32 AM on February 4, 2014

I tore my rotator cuff in a car accident in 2000. I didn't get immediate care (no insurance), so much of what I have done in the last decade has been geared towards alleviating pain and stiffness. I've spoken to my doctors (all they could do at this point is surgery, but I would rather avoid that) and gone onto the physical therapist stage. Physical therapy is so, so, SO important with injuries like this.

The most important thing that I have learned is that the other muscles/joints in my back/shoulders/neck will try to overcompensate for the weak shoulder. The torn rotator cuff threw everything out of whack. What I would recommend is (with your physical therapist's guidance, of course) keeping those back/shoulders/neck muscles strong and those joints flexible.

So, go to the doctor, get thee to physical therapy, and do the exercises they recommend. You're going to have to be vigilant on your own and keep with it. Trust me - 20 minutes of exercises a day is so much better than decades of pain and stiffness.

Just saw your update. I hesitate to tell you about stretches I like because, well, I don't know where your arm is hurt, and what might be good for me might make your arm worse. I do like a heating pad when it gets stiff, though.
posted by Elly Vortex at 11:37 AM on February 4, 2014

I tore my rotator cuff once. I was newly 18 and stupidly exercised my right to refuse medical treatment so I never saw a doctor. I iced it for a while and took it easy on my arm for a few months. Almost a decade later, my arm/shoulder is fully functional but still hurts if I am not careful with posture, or ride my bike for a long time without warming it up, or things like that.

So, like Elly Vortex says, see a doctor! Do whatever the doc says!
posted by thewestinggame at 11:41 AM on February 4, 2014

Only an MRI can determine if you've got a tear. The shoulder is complicated and even just a strain can take quite a long time to heal properly. I strained my shoulder, but it wasn't torn, and it hurt for almost a year because I was sleeping on it weird.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 11:43 AM on February 4, 2014

I have been doing the PT, stretching and strengthening route for a rotator cuff injury for about 5 years. During that time it has gradually gotten worse so seeing a surgeon next week. I did PT for many months a few years back and do strength training with a trainer who is experienced in working with this kind of injury multiple times a week to keep the surrounding muscles strong.

I would suggest you ice it daily and especially after any exertion. I have been taking turmeric capsules daily - there are studies that show it's a pretty effective anti-inflammatory without the hazards of either tylenol or an NSAID. I use those too but try to limit it. Be mindful of how you sleep - I find that if I sleep on the bad side or even have my pillows positioned wrong I will pay the next day.

And good luck - this sort of injury seems to be really persistent and I can attest to just how painful and limiting it is. Hope you can find a fix, ideally a non-surgical one. Be aware that whatever you do may take a long time and require a lot of PT to solve or moderate it.
posted by leslies at 12:09 PM on February 4, 2014

You're going to the doctor, so I won't go on about that.

I supermanned my left armpit onto the corner of a footpath two years ago and went to hospital that night. After x-rays, I got treated for mostly a rotator cuff injury, and about two months in and an MRI and CT later, it turned out it was my rotator cuff, a fracture, and a bit of a subluxed joint. I'd been driving and using my arm all along but they strapped it up and I got a lot of physiotherapy, but I'd been doing most of the wrong things even under medical advice and I'm so glad long-term that I had the right treatment.

(Two years later, it's mostly fine though swimming freestyle isn't very comfortable. The first year was painful but decreasingly so.)

I hope you get good news.
posted by carbide at 12:13 PM on February 4, 2014

Please take a look at the anatomy of the shoulder to understand the complexity and why we can't give good recommendation besides rest, ice, antinflammatory, doctor, and physio.

The link above describes the 10 different movements of the "shoulder" joint. The shoulder is composed of three joints: Acromioclavicular joint, Glenohumeral joint, Sternoclavicular joint. In addition to the muscles of the shoulder enumerated on the page, the movement of the arm is helped by major muscles in your torso. This includes the latissimus, the trapezius, and the pectoral muscles.

Injury or weakness in any of these areas could cause pain in your arm and on overhead movement. This is in addition to whatever you might have done falling on an outstretched arm. You may have inadvertently caused overuse injury in some other area while the acute injury healed.

Self-massage, including gentle foam rolling, may be helpful for you but some do not like that approach.
posted by crazycanuck at 12:15 PM on February 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I damaged (but did not tear) my rotator cuff when I came off my bike a few years ago. No swelling but very painful to begin with, and I couldn't raise my arm above a certain level. The doctor poked at the arm and asked me to do things like pull or push his hand. I was given a set of exercises to do with that arm; most of the pain wore off after a couple of weeks, but it was easily a year or so before I had regained full function.

I hope you feel better soon!
posted by doop at 12:57 PM on February 4, 2014

This sounds pretty much exactly like my arm injury which happened two months ago. I thought it was just pulled muscles but it did the same thing, got somewhat better and then just stayed the same.

I went to the doctor a week and half ago and yep it's rotator cuff something or other. Getting the necessary tests at the end of the week to check for an actual tear and impingement.

I saw a physio last week and he spent a good 45 minutes testing my arm to figure out exactly where and how much it's injured. I asked about time for healing and he said that it's hard to tell until he sees how my arm responds to the physio plan coupled with the test results.

As others have said the shoulder is really complex and how much time it will take your injury to get better depends on what exactly you've done and your doctor and physio will let you know exactly what you should do. It's really a type of injury that needs good assessment and direction to know what one should and shouldn't do.

The results of my mechanical tests let my physio know what movements and exercises, that although somewhat painful I should be doing verses movements and exercises that are somewhat painful and bag for the injury. I wouldn't have been able to figure this out on my own, like exercises for the muscles halfway down my back because the injury caused me to unknowingly favor using another muscle and stop using the full range of shoulder blade muscles.

Hopefully your injury will be relatively quick to heal. I figure that regardless of how long mine is going to take I'm going to develop some kick ass looking and in shape shoulders in the process so there is a bright side.
posted by Jalliah at 2:55 PM on February 4, 2014

Buy a sling at the drugstore and wear it until you see the doctor. It should stop it from hurting. That way you won't feel as dumb if you find out it's broken and you've spent three weeks walking around holding your arm up at an angle with your other hand to stop it from hurting when they make slings to do just that! Or so I've heard.
posted by fshgrl at 3:04 PM on February 4, 2014

Shoulders are awesome, but they also kind of suck. I did something to mine a while back doing acrobatics, and it's been about six months to heal up decently. It's still not perfect. See a doctor, but be prepared for pretty much the advice you're getting here: ice, rest, sling, stretch, etc. The doctor is basically going to make sure you don't need surgery.

For me, a huge part of recovery was training myself to sleep with that shoulder in a neutral position. I used to sleep on my side with that arm under my head. This was bad, because it placed the joint under strain all night when it should have been resting.

I also take care when working out, and "check in" with my shoulder regularly, and ease off when necessary. I cut out overhead lifting for a few months, and only do it very carefully now, with a preference for dumbbells over barbells. Watch out for things you might not expect, like the pressure you put on it when leaning forward on your bike.
posted by Nothing at 5:48 PM on February 4, 2014

Tore my supraspinatus 16 months ago picking up my wife's nephew, did nothing about it for 3 months, physical therapy for 4 months which didn't help much, got an MRI and a recommendation to be evaluated for surgery, have beeen stalling on the surgery until after a sailing trip this month – but then in the last month or so it's been feeling gradually quite a lot better, so I may or may not go though with it before summer.
posted by nicwolff at 10:53 AM on February 5, 2014

I'd been having increased pain in my right shoulder after a few bad falls in roller derby - most of the time it felt okay, if a little weak, but if I moved my arm to a certain angle, it would REALLY REALLY hurt. (motions like pushups and similar.)

I went to the doctor who referred me to an orthopedic doctor, who took a look at it about a week ago, and had me move my arm around - he diagnosed it as a bone spur that was irritating the tendons - a few weeks of PT and I'd be fine. Then he did an ultrasound, just to check.

It turns out that I have a full thickness tear of my rotator cuff.

My surgery is scheduled for the 16th. I'll be in a sling for at least four weeks after that, and possibly six. No driving, no heavy lifting. Lots and lots of PT.
posted by Lucinda at 2:49 PM on April 9, 2014

Ironic timing to have this thread pop up in recent activity because I had surgery this morning for a supraspinatus tear & a bone spur. Will only be in a sling overnight - not a full thickness tear. I had put this off for a long time & made it worse bt doing so - lot of scar tissue & tear into cartilage too so take that into account. i blame typos on typing with only off hand & pain meds.
posted by leslies at 5:37 PM on April 9, 2014

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