Symptoms of Rotator Cuff Tendon Tears?

Dr. Patrick Chin, MD, MBA, FRCSC, Orthopedic Surgeon, discusses rotator cuff tendon tears.

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Dr. Patrick Chin, MD, MBA, FRCSC, Orthopedic Surgeon, discusses rotator cuff tendon tears.
Video transcript

Featuring Dr. Patrick Chin, MD, MBA, FRCSC, Orthopedic Surgeon

Duration: 3 minutes, 13 seconds

Rotator cuff tendon complex is comprised of four main tendons. 

The one tendon upfront is called the subscapularis tendon and then there are two tendons up top called the supraspinatus and the infraspinatus tendon. The fourth tendon is on the back and called the teres minor.  

The most commonly torn tendon is the supraspinatus, but obviously the tear can extend and enlarge over time and can include three to four – or three tendons out of four tendons most commonly. So the tear size could be small, medium, large or massive.  

So as you can see, the main symptom for these patients when they present is usually pain and if the tear is larger in size, subsequently patients will also experience weakness.

The rotator cuff tendons are about the shoulder – they surround the shoulder and they basically help rotate the joint.  In essence there are four main tendons that comprise the rotator cuff complex. 

As you can see here, this is the model of a shoulder with the soft tissue attachments to it. One in the front called the subscapularis tendon and there are two top tendons, top front, top back.

The top front tendon is called the supraspinatus tendon and the top back tendon is called the infraspinatus tendon. And as you move toward the back, teres minor is the fourth tendon that comprises the whole rotator cuff complex.

The most commonly torn tendon is usually the supraspinatus tendon followed by the infraspinatus tendon and then the third tendon that can be torn is the subscapularis tendon. So this is usually the area where patients can get pain from a rotator cuff tear. 

At times though pain from the shoulder from a rotator cuff tear can be referred down to the elbow. So patients will often describe pain that starts on the outside or lateral aspect of the shoulder, and at times it can radiate to the elbow.

As far as the diagnosis of rotator cuff tears, it is a clinical diagnosis based on physical examination by a physician and then followed by obviously some imaging to try and identify the tendons that are torn. 

The imaging options were comprised from a basic x-ray of the shoulder to look at the bone and joint configuration followed by an ultrasound or an MRI scan of the shoulder to look at the soft tissue structures about the shoulder.

As you know, the rotator cuff tendons are soft tissue, so as a result, the ultrasound and MRI scan will be able to give a better idea of the size of the tear and the characteristics of the tear, potentially.   

Presenter: Dr. Patrick Chin, Orthopaedic Surgeon, Vancouver, BC

Local Practitioners: Orthopaedic Surgeon

Video Quiz ( 63 participated.)

Test your knowledge by answering the following questions:


The main symptoms of a rotator cuff tear is pain in the shoulder that can sometimes radiate down into the elbow.


If a rotator cuff tear is severe enough a patient can also experience weakness in the arm.


There are only 2 tendons in the shoulder that can be injured.

This content is for informational purposes only, and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare professional with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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