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This question comes up a lot. Is it a muscle? Is it a tendon? What does it do?
The shoulder joint is one of the most mobile and least stable joints of the body. While there are many muscles in and around your shoulder that move your arm up, down, forward and around, there are four muscles that specifically serve to hold and stabilize the arm in the shoulder socket.
Enter the muscles and tendons that make up the “rotator cuff.” There are four muscles that originate on different parts of the shoulder blade and surround and protect the joint capsule. The tendons of these muscles then attach to the upper arm (humerus). (Tendons attach muscle to bone; ligaments attach bone to bone.) These tendons somewhat fuse at the attachment giving the appearance of the cuff on a shirt. Hence their common name—rotator cuff.
Because our shoulder gets so much use and abuse these tendons are subject to tearing. Sometimes the tear is tiny and can heal itself. Other times it requires surgery.
Can massage help rotator cuff injuries? It is extremely important to let the massage therapist know if you suspect an injury, as we sometimes move your arm into different positions. We don't want to cause any undue strain. Gentle, detailed massage or the use of massage cups in the area of the injury will increase blood flow to the area, which promotes repair. Likewise, after a tear is surgically repaired and healed, massage can help to limit the build-up of scar tissue. Even if surgery isn’t required, scar tissue can still build up as small tears heal on their own.
While most doctors and surgeons simply refer to it as the rotator cuff, you might find it helpful to know which tendon of which muscle is injured, as each muscle plays a slightly different role in the movement of your arm.
In any situation, if you are experiencing chronic pain in or near your shoulder, seek medical advice rather than risk more damage.