Rotator Cuff Injuries: Tennis Players, Pitchers and Everyone Else Can Be At Risk

Tears, sprains or strains to the shoulder’s rotator cuff are common injuries for certain athletes, particularly tennis players and baseball pitchers, but they can occur to any physically active individual or anyone as they get older.

Your arm is kept in your shoulder socket by your rotator cuff, which is a group of four muscles that come together as tendons to form a covering around the head of the humerus, the long bone in the upper arm. The rotator cuff attaches the humerus to the shoulder blade and helps to lift and rotate your arm.

Each time they serve, the tennis players competing at the Miami Open at Hard Rock Stadium are putting a significant amount of pressure on the group of muscles that comprise the rotator cuff.

“The rotator cuff are the muscles that come off your shoulder blade and the tendons of those muscles surround the ball,” says John Uribe, M.D., orthopedic surgeon, Miami Open tournament physician and chief medical executive at Miami Orthopedics & Sports Medicine Institute.” So consequently, because of their size and what they do, they’re susceptible to injury.”

(Watch Now: The Baptist Health News Team hears about rotator cuff injuries from John Uribe, M.D., Miami Open physician, orthopedic surgeon and chief medical executive at Miami Orthopedics & Sports Medicine Institute. Video by Alcyene C. de Almeida Rodrigues.)

Dr. Uribe, and fellow Institute physicians provide medical services to the Miami Open tournament players.

“When you play tennis, particularly a serve, that is very similar to a throw,” explains Dr. Uribe. “It’s almost the same motion. For example, baseball pitchers sustain rotator cuff injuries because, as you release the ball, that tendon comes under tremendous stress. Serving a tennis ball is the same. So you can end up having tears, strains and sprains.”

People doing everyday activities can also tear their rotator cuff. “If you fall down on your outstretched arm or lift something too heavy with a jerking motion, you can tear your rotator cuff,” states the American Academy of Orthopeadic Surgeons (AAOS). “This type of tear can occur with other shoulder injuries, such as a broken collarbone or dislocated shoulder.”

While top athletes put their shoulders at risk at a young age, for everyone else rotator cuff tears are usually the result of the wearing down of the tendon that occurs slowly over time. This degeneration occurs naturally as a person ages. Rotator cuff tears are more common in a person’s dominant arm. Additionally, if you have a degenerative tear in one shoulder, you are at a greater risk of a rotator cuff tear in the opposite shoulder — even if you have no pain in that shoulder.

In addition to athletes, such as tennis and baseball players, people who do repetitive lifting or overhead activities are also at risk for rotator cuff tears. Even for athletes who properly prepare or condition themselves before games or matches, it’s difficult to prevent injuries. However, anyone who stays physically fit and performs regular muscle-strengthening exercises with the shoulder and back muscles can be better prepared to avoid injuries or early degeneration of the rotator cuff.

“I don’t know that you can truly prevent rotator cuff injuries, but you can certainly minimize the risk,” says Dr. Uribe. “As you get older, the tendons naturally break down a little bit … so it’s important to try and maintain the strength of those muscles and that certainly helps prevent injuries.”

Symptoms of Rotator Cuff Tears
According to the AAOS, the most common symptoms of a rotator cuff tear include:

  • Pain at rest and at night, particularly if lying on the affected shoulder;
  • Pain when lifting and lowering your arm, or with specific movements;
  • Weakness when lifting or rotating your arm;
  • Crepitus, or the crackling sensation when moving your shoulder in certain positions.

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