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Rotator Cuff Tear and Frozen Shoulder - How Are the Two Different?

Most of us do not realize how often we use our shoulder until we feel pain or are unable to move it at all.

Most of us do not realize how often we use our shoulder until we feel pain or are unable to move it at all. There are shoulder conditions that lead to pain, stiffness and reduced range of motion. Rotator cuff tear and frozen shoulder are two of the most common shoulder conditions that orthopedic surgeonstreat every day. A rotator cuff tear is often mistaken for a frozen shoulder, so here we explain how the two are actually different.  

What is a Rotator Cuff Tear?  

Shoulder joint is bounded by a group of muscles called the rotator cuff. These muscles work in tandem with tendons to make the shoulder joint stable so that you can move your arms easily. In other words, they are extremely crucial for the proper functioning of the shoulder joint.

A tear in the rotator cuff can happen in two ways:   

Partial Tear: In partial tear, the tendon is partially damaged.
Complete Tear: In complete tear, the tendon is pulled off the bone completely, causing severe damage to the shoulder.   


Rotator cuff tear may be a result of an acute injury, say fall, in adults. It can also be caused by age-related wear and tear which may result in the degeneration of the tendon. Initially, you will experience pain in the front of your shoulder which travels down your arm. If you indulge in activities like lifting, the pain may worsen. Also, it may aggravate if you try sleeping on the affected side. Consequently, you may note weakness in your arm and difficulty in accomplishing daily tasks like combing your hair or reaching behind your back.


In the beginning, you may not observe the prominent symptoms of rotator cuff tear except the pain while using arm or pain during night which could interrupt your good night’s sleep. In case the tear is insignificant, your arm may still fully function. But when it becomes significant, you may not be able to lift your arm(s) at all. In rare cases, it may lead to a condition called shoulder arthritis.


At first, the clinical examination of the shoulder joint treatment is performed by the doctor. An X-ray is also taken into account which is followed by an MRI scan. MRI is done to determine the extent of tear and calculate the amount of retraction and fatty degeneration in the rotator cuff.   


One of the best arthroscopy treatment options available for rotator cuff tear. In this, several keyholes are made around the shoulder and the surgery is performed through these keyholes with the help of a camera and other instruments. If the rotator cuff is in its early stages, the bony spur is removed from underneath the acromion to make space for the rotator cuff and reduce the amount of rubbing which may result into further degrading of the muscle. The treatment is called subacromial decompression.  

In case of an extensive tear, surgery is needed in which sutures are employed to repair the tear.

What is a Frozen Shoulder and How Is It Different?

Also known as adhesive capsulitis, frozen shoulder is a condition that develops when your shoulder joint is compromised. It also affects the shoulder capsule – a tissue that encircles the shoulder joint. When you start developing a frozen shoulder, the shoulder capsule starts becoming thick and stiff. As a result, you find it difficult to move your arm or shoulder. Also, it results in the loss of synovial fluid which helps in keeping the joint lubricated for a smooth movement.

A lot of times, people confuse frozen shoulder with rotator cuff tear. However, the two are different. The former has a different pattern of symptoms which results in severe shoulder pain and cause stiffness. With a rotator cuff tear, the arm’s range of motion may be limited, but you can still lift it yourself. In contrast, frozen shoulder is characterized by aching pain and majorly follows constant immobilization.  

If you look at the medical statistics pertaining to frozen shoulder, you will find that women are affected by this condition more than men. Also, it is more common in people in their 50’s and 60’s. However, with proper treatment which includes the intake of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin or ibuprofen that help relieve pain, the condition can improve significantly. If the symptoms are severe, other treatment options like joint distension and surgery are considered.