A muscle tear in your shoulder can make simple tasks difficult, like reaching into a cupboard or grooming your hair. Tears in both the muscles and tendons of the shoulder are common injuries that often produce similar symptoms. Tears range from small to large, with larger tears are more likely to cause pain. Other symptoms of shoulder tears include swelling, bruising, weakness, limited motion and joint noise such as clicking or popping. Mild tears often heal without lingering symptoms. Larger tears with persistent or severe symptoms may require physical therapy or surgery.
Bruising, Redness and Swelling
The rotator cuff, which includes 4 muscles and tendons, is a common site of shoulder injury. A tear can occur due to trauma, overuse of the shoulder or degenerative changes associated with aging. A traumatic tear may produce bruising and obvious signs of inflammation, including redness and swelling of the shoulder and upper arm. Tears caused by age-related changes and overuse often lack visible signs of inflammation, although the tissue within the shoulder joint is inflamed.
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Shoulder pain is a common symptom of a muscle or tendon tear in the area. The pain frequently extends into the upper arm as well. Shoulder pain often leads to sleep difficulties, especially with side sleeping. Particular injuries may have distinct pain symptoms. For example, the biceps muscle and tendon, which run along the front of the shoulder and upper arm, often cause sharp pain when they tear. If the tear is complete, a large bulging muscle will be visible in the front of the upper arm. Work and sports activities that require repetitive overhead activities can cause tears in more than one shoulder muscle or tendon, leading to more generalized soreness throughout the shoulder area.
Muscle Weakness, Limited Motion and Popping
A torn muscle or tendon is often associated with weakness in the shoulder and arm. Lifting objects and reaching the arm overhead may become difficult. The supraspinatus -- one of the rotator cuff muscles -- is frequently injured. A torn supraspinatus causes weakness specifically when lifting the arm to the side. A torn biceps muscle creates weakness with carrying and lifting objects in front of the body. A muscle tear in your shoulder may also cause popping or clicking when moving the arm.
When to See the Doctor
Severe pain or a sudden, substantial loss of shoulder mobility or upper arm strength typically indicates a serious injury that should be treated immediately. Urgent medical care is also needed when a suspected shoulder tear occurs due to a traumatic injury or fall. With trauma, other injuries are also possible, including bone fractures, dislocations, ligament tears and damaged cartilage. Nontraumatic tears, which are particularly common in older adults, can cause emotional stress and anxiety due to difficulties with daily activities. Talk to your doctor to explore the options for managing these injuries and their daily impact. If there is any doubt about the nature of the shoulder or upper body pain, seek emergency medical care, since such pain may be a symptom of a heart attack.
Reviewed by: Tina M. St. John, M.D.
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: Rotator Cuff Tears
- BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders: Living With a Symptomatic Rotator Cuff Tear ‘Bad Days, Bad Nights’: A Qualitative Study
- American College of Sports Medicine: Keeping Shoulders Strong and Healthy
- Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery: Symptomatic Progression of Asymptomatic Rotator Cuff Tears
- The Bone and Joint Journal: Treatment of Non-traumatic Rotator Cuff Tears: A Randomised Controlled Trial With One-Year Clinical Results
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.