There are a lot of people walking around with slings, pillows and other devices on their arms. They’re usually a sign of a surgical procedure done to the person’s shoulder.
The most common surgery that requires this is treatment is surgery that relates to the rotator cuff.
The rotator cuff is four small muscles that basically surround the head of the upper arm bone or the humerus and help support it. It initiates movement with the shoulder.
The rotator cuff is small and weak and the tissue has a poor blood supply, making it prone to injuries, especially in the athletic community.
Those of us who were athletes are even more prone to rotator cuff tears as time goes on. Often these tear for no reason other than we are 40-plus years old and it just seems to give out.
A person usually experiences a lot of nighttime achiness and is unable to lift the arm like they did before the tear. They typically get a lot of substitution and shoulder elevation when they try to move the shoulder.
An orthopedic surgeon needs to look at the condition. They usually order an MRI, which will show the tear, and then they will surgically repair it. Almost all rotator cuff tears now can be surgically corrected through arthroscopy, which cuts down on the morbidity, decreases pain and accelerates rehabilitation.
In all cases, they are in some type of protective device for the first four to six weeks, depending on the surgeon’s preference. The device is determined by to the surgeon and the level of the repair. Historically, the worse the tear the more difficulty they have attaching it and the more a pillow, sling or combination will be needed.
These devices protect the rotator cuff repair and put it in a slack position to limit stress in the early healing, allowing scarring to occur. The patient typically progresses from the pillow to a sling, but the time in each depends on on the surgeon’s specifications.
Each person’s tear and the repair procedure and device varies depending on which muscle is torn, the location of the tear and the repair. Comparing rotator cuff tears is like comparing apples to oranges.
There is not much you can do to prevent the tears. They are usually a degenerative tear that happens because of long, illustrious athletic careers.
It’s a good idea to keep your arm strong when you’re young, but it won’t necessarily prevent these injuries. Unfortunately, wearing out is part of life, and the rotator cuff is just more prone than other body parts.
Tom Jensen, PT/ATC, is a physical therapist and athletic trainer at the Orthopedic Sports Center. He received his physical therapy degree from the College of St. Scholastica. He did his undergraduate work at South Dakota University where he got his athletic training certificate. He has been at the Orthopedic Sports Center/St. Cloud Orthopedics since 1980 and has specialized in orthopedic/sports physical therapy for over 30 years.