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Do You Have a Rotator Cuff Tear?

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Updated February 27, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

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The Drop Arm Test

 There are many different causes of shoulder pain.  Your pain may be caused by arthritis, shoulder bursitis, or rotator cuff impingement.

A rotator cuff tear may also be a cause of your shoulder pain.  The rotator cuff is a group of four muscles that surround and support your shoulder.  When you move your arm, these four muscles contract to help keep your shoulder joint in the correct position.

If you have a rotator cuff tear, moving your shoulder normally may become difficult.  Lifting your arm may be painful, and performing simple activities like washing your hair or putting away dishes may be difficult or impossible.

If you suspect you have a rotator cuff tear, there are a few things you can do to confirm your suspicions.  Performing certain shoulder special tests can help you determine if a rotator cuff tear is causing your shoulder pain and functional limitations with lifting your arm.

Of course, nothing replaces the clinical expertise of your doctor or physical therapist, so it is always a good idea to check in with a healthcare professional to ensure you get an accurate diagnosis and proper treatment.

The first test to assess the status of your rotator cuff is the drop arm test.  This test is done with a friend present.

  • Sit or stand comfortably.
  • Have your friend gently lift your painful arm up and out to the side of your body until your arm is parallel with the floor.
  • Have your friend let your arm go.
  • If you arm drops and you are unable to maintain your arm in the position away from your body, you may have a rotator cuff tear.

When performing the drop arm test, watch your shoulder blade motion.  Many people compensate for a weak or torn rotator cuff by lifting their shoulder blade up towards their ear.

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