An injury to the shoulder's rotator cuff can be as minor as a muscle strain or as severe as a torn tendon, and the symptoms of rotator cuff injury vary based on how severe that injury is. Mild symptoms include pain when moving the arm and shoulder outside the normal range of motion, or difficulty moving the arm through the full range. There may also be aches and pain in the shoulder after sitting in the same position for a long time, or the individual may find sleep difficult because of the pain of putting pressure on or around the rotator cuff.
Most injuries to the tendons or muscles of the rotator cuff involve pain. Even minor injuries such as straining muscles from repeated activities, like lifting boxes from the floor to the back of a truck, can result in twinges of pain. Often, the symptoms of rotator cuff injury are worst when lifting the arm up high, such as taking something off a shelf or reaching up to close curtains. These kinds of injuries can generally heal over time, with proper rest of the damage muscle or tendon.
Different types of pain occur as symptoms of rotator cuff injury. A constant, throbbing pain in the shoulder can sometimes be managed with over-the-counter pain medications and generally gets better with a few days of rest. At other times, there may be a sharp, stabbing pain that gets worse with certain movements. This often indicates a tear in the muscle or tendon, and can be accompanied by difficulty lifting the arm and a lack of strength in the muscles of the arm and shoulder.
If the individual repeats constant motions that irritate but do not tear any of the muscles or tendons, he or she may develop aches and pains that come and go, as well as periods of reduced strength and difficulty in moving the arm. Pressure on the arm and shoulder may make this worse, and these symptoms of rotator cuff injury may begin to interfere with sleep. Usually, there are also difficulties in moving the arm in the direction supported by the injured areas.
In some cases, there may be signs of inflammation around the joint and shoulder. This is caused by the immune system's response to the damage; when torn or damaged tissues are flooded with cells from the immune system, there can be a buildup of fluid, tenderness, and minor swelling. Swelling of the shoulder generally means that the injury is a severe one and may require medical attention in order to ensure proper care.