If you have a rotator cuff injury you might be wondering if there are certain movements across the board that will aggravate symptoms or make it worse. 

With a rotator cuff injury, there are many different types of movements that could aggravate symptoms. Some people experience discomfort only with lifting weights, while others do without lifting any weight. 

You might even experience symptoms at rest. 

Additionally, symptoms can come on from flexion, extension, abduction, adduction, internal or external rotation and a combination of those movements. It really takes a thorough examination or a self-test to see which movements are most aggravating. 

Sometimes symptoms don’t come on right away either and you’ll need to wait 24 hours to see which movement flares symptoms up. 

Here’s what we are going to cover in the rest of this article:

pointing to shoulder

Table of contents

Can I Make a Rotator Cuff Injury Worse?

What causes the rotator cuff to flare up?

Where is rotator cuff pain felt?

What should I not do with a rotator cuff injury?

Can a rotator cuff tear make your whole arm hurt?

Will an MRI show a torn rotator cuff?

Can I make a rotator cuff injury worse?

It is possible to make your rotator cuff injury worse if you continue to do the movements and activities that have been flaring it up or caused it in the first place. 

My recommendation is to identify the movements and/or activities that you know flare it up and then modify those

What I mean by modify is to reduce the frequency (how many days a week you’re doing it), reduce volume (how many sets/reps), reduce the intensity (decrease weight or difficulty), and reduce duration (decrease the total amount of time). 

Modify one variable at a time give it 24-48 hours and see which one works for you. It’s important to test these variables in a sequential manner. If you do not it will be very difficult to come up with a plan that works for you. 

What causes the rotator cuff to flare up?

Keep in mind that the below list is different for each person. You may experience one, multiple, or none of these.

  • Doing activities that the shoulder is sensitive to
  • Sleeping on the affected side
  • Sleeping on the unaffected side
  • Lifting your arm in certain directions
  • Random.  Sometimes the shoulder will flare up randomly without any precursor. 
  • Colder weather

There is likely an inflammatory process that is present when the shoulder is painful however it’s very difficult to know exactly where or how much inflammation is taking place. Even with an MRI, you won’t be able to differentiate this unless there is a large amount of fluid. 

left shoulder pain

Where is rotator cuff pain felt?

Rotator cuff pain can be felt in several different spots however I’ll list the most common below.

  • Deep within the shoulder 
  • In the armpit
  • Posterior shoulder (back of the shoulder) 
  • Anterior and lateral shoulder
  • Around the entire shoulder 
  • Top of the shoulder blade

As you can see, pain in the shoulder is very difficult to decipher. 

The easiest shoulder pathology to diagnose is biceps tendinosis/tendinitis as it usually has pinpoint discomfort to the touch. 

A symptomatic labral tear, RTC, and others shoulder pathologies have similar presentations. 

The most common sign I see from a full-thickness rotator cuff tear that might require surgery is an inability to lift the arm at all due to weakness, stiffness, and pain. 

What should I not do with a rotator cuff injury?

You should avoid and/or modify activities that flare-up symptoms. It’s important to identify what is flaring up symptoms and then make a plan to address this. 

You can try doing this on your own or you can work with a physical therapist to help you through this process. 

Can a rotator cuff tear make your whole arm hurt?

A rotator cuff tear can make your whole arm hurt. If the shoulder is hurting it’s not uncommon for pain to radiate down the arm, usually in an aching fashion. 

This is different from a nerve-type pain where it’s numb, tingling, and sharp.

This is also a common presentation (aching), in a ‘dead arm,’ which is common in baseball players or other overhead athletes. This is sometimes related to a SLAP tear which I’ve covered in other articles. 

Will an MRI show a torn rotator cuff?

An MRI will show a rotator cuff tear. 

It’s important to note that an MRI is only one piece of the puzzle in determining treatment. 

If you have a full range of motion, minimal strength loss, and you can manage the pain, you should do non-operative treatment first. 

Ideally, you would perform these exercises and other modalities for at least 3 months prior to deciding you are going to get a more invasive procedure done. 

Key Takeaways

  • You can make an RTC injury worse if keep doing things that aggravate it
  • There are many things that can cause an RTC tear to flare up and it’s different for each person
  • RTC pain is felt deep in the shoulder and/or on the posterior portion of the shoulder. This can also be felt in other parts of the shoulder, too, which makes diagnosis difficult. It doesn’t change treatment all that much. 
  • Modify activities that flare up symptoms
  • A rotator cuff tear can make your whole arm hurt
  • An MRI will show a torn rotator cuff but this is only one piece of the evaluation puzzle and does not definitively mean you should get a surgical procedure.