If you’ve ever had shoulder pain that is dull, achy, or sometimes even sharp, you might be experiencing pain related to the rotator cuff (given there are many other potential causes)

Strained rotator cuff muscles and torn rotator cuff muscles are technically the same things. 

In regular, everyday language, people tend to say strained when they mean partially torn because a strain is a sequence of small tears in either the muscle belly or the tendon. 

When people refer to a torn rotator cuff they usually are referring to a full-thickness rotator cuff tear meaning there is a complete separation of the RTC tendon from the bone.  

In the rest of this article, I’m going to discuss some more of the primary differences and how your symptoms might be different. 

shoulder blade and shoulder massage

Strained Rotator Cuff Vs. Torn Rotator Cuff

Generally with a strained rotator cuff or a “partial tear,” you will have full range of motion, and the only symptoms you’ll have are pain, and potentially difficulty sleeping at night. RTC pain is usually deep and achy. 

With a full-thickness rotator cuff tear, you may have a severe lack of strength and range of motion in the shoulder too. 

However, it’s important to note that many people have full-thickness rotator cuff tears and do not have any pain or lack of strength associated with this. 

So, please make sure that you have a thorough evaluation from a physical therapist before you even think of having a surgical procedure done for this. 

Other musculature is often able to compensate for the full-thickness rotator cuff tear. 

How To Know Which Rotator Cuff Muscle is Torn?

Usually, you will need an MRI to determine which specific one muscle is torn as symptoms are oftentimes the same. The only difference is that if you have a subscapularis tear your internal rotation strength on the affected side might be significantly affected. 

There are four different rotator cuff muscles:

  • Infraspinatus 
  • Supraspinatus
  • Subscapularis
  • Teres Minor

What does a small rotator cuff tear feel like?

A small tear oftentimes can feel the same as a full-thickness tear. 

This is an important point: the amount of pain is not always related to the size of the tear. 

This is why a thorough physical examination and a full history are important to complete. The full examination should include a movement screen and a discussion of how your symptoms began, what they feel like, and seeing what your physical limitations are. 

If you are symptomatic, and it is related to your RTC (rotator cuff), a full-thickness tear often results in an inability to lift the arm

If it’s a partial tear strength is usually maintained and there is just pain. 

Can Physical Therapy Help Heal a Full Thickness Rotator Cuff Tear?

While exercise and other types of therapy are not going to reattach the tendon to the bone, what they can do is reduce pain and discomfort and help you to regain full shoulder functionality. 

Additionally, let’s say that you might need surgery in the future, physical therapy will only help you to better prepare for that as you’ll increase your overall strength prior to undergoing the surgical procedure. This is called pre-operative rehabilitation or “prehab.”

Key Takeaways

  • A strained rotator cuff is technically the same thing as a torn rotator cuff
  • People usually refer to a strained rotator cuff when talking bout a partial tear
  • People usually refer to a torn rotator cuff as a full-thickness tear
  • Surgery is often not required for partial or complete RTC tears