5 Rotator Cuff Stretches to Address & Prevent Shoulder Injuries

Rotator cuff injuries are extremely common. In fact, each year, over two million people in the U.S. visit their doctors because of rotator cuff tears and injuries. Fortunately, many rotator cuff injuries and strains are treatable without surgery. Doing regular rotator cuff stretches can help.

If you suspect a rotator cuff injury, it’s essential to visit a physician immediately for assessment. The symptoms of an injury can be similar to other diagnoses, so the first step is to see a doctor and rule out any other serious issues.

At MOSH, we treat rotator cuff injuries and many other orthopedic concerns. Contact us today if you’re experiencing shoulder pain. If you hope to keep your rotator cuff healthy and pain-free, explore these stretches to support shoulder health.

What is a Rotator Cuff, and What Does it Do?

The shoulder is a wonderfully complex joint that allows a large amount of motion, enabling us to perform our daily activities. Unfortunately, this large amount of movement can come at the expense of stability. The rotator cuff is responsible for our shoulder stability and is an often-injured cause of pain in the shoulder.

The rotator cuff is comprised of four muscles that come together to hold the shoulder ball (humerus) in the socket (glenoid) to initiate and control motion. These rotation-supporting muscles join to form a common tendon that runs under where your collar bone (clavicle) and the top of your shoulder blade (acromion) meet (acromial clavicular joint).

The rotator cuff is a crucial element of movement and activity. If you have an injury or tear in your shoulder’s rotator cuff, it’s essential to address it right away. As the injury progresses, it can greatly impact your mobility and pain.

How to Identify a Rotator Cuff Injury

So how do you know if your rotator cuff is injured? How do these injuries occur, and what can you do to prevent rotator cuff damage?

If your rotator cuff is injured, you may experience dull shoulder or upper arm pain when sleeping, especially on the affected side. You may also feel pain when lifting or raising your arm above your head. Rotator cuff injuries often feel like soreness or achiness during activities and sports.

There are several ways people often injure their rotator cuffs; two of the most common types of injuries are overuse and impingement. Overuse occurs with repetitive movements, often with a load or weight that exceeds the capability of the rotator cuff muscles. Impingement occurs when the rotator cuff is pinched between the humerus and the acromial clavicular joint.

In both types of shoulder injuries, the rotator cuff tendon becomes inflamed and can be a source of pain. Tears may occur if the rotator cuff is continuously irritated and overloaded.

Should you experience a complete rotator cuff tear, or a severe rotator cuff injury, you may need shoulder surgery. It’s essential to consult with a physician, especially if the injury happens suddenly, the pain is sharp, or the arm feels immobile.

The good news for those experiencing rotator cuff inflammation and strain: physical therapy can help! For both overuse injury and impingement, therapy will help with decreasing irritation. Physical therapists may use modalities on the injury (e.g., ultrasound, ice, or electrical stimulation) while focusing on reducing irritating motions or activities.

The top way to avoid irritation of the rotator cuff is to improve the mechanics of the shoulder with regular stretching and exercise. Good mechanics will require good flexibility and joint movement balanced with sufficient strength, finally putting these all together through coordinated movement.

You can start supporting your rotator cuff health by trying some of these stretches below. However, if any of these exercises cause pain, stop and contact your physical therapist.

Rotator Cuff Support Exercise 1: Arm Circles

Arm circles are a great rotator cuff stretch to help all the muscles in your dynamic shoulder joint.

A man in a blue shirt uses the corner of a black table for support. The man is holding his arm loose at the shoulder as he begins an arm circle exercise to improve his mobility.

  • Setup: To set up this rotator cuff exercise, start with a standing position with your trunk bent forward. Rest one arm on a table for support. Allow your other arm to hang toward the ground.
  • Movement: Slowly shift your body weight in a circular motion, letting your hanging arm swing in a circle at the same time.
  • Tip: Make sure the movement comes from your body shifting, and do not use your arm muscles to create the circular motion.

Rotator Cuff Support Exercise 2: Towel Slides

Simple towel slides are an ideal shoulder stretch for improving the range of motion in your rotator cuff.

A woman in a blue tank top and black bike shorts stands with her feet shoulder-width apart, facing a white wall. Her right arm is extended against the wall, above eye level. She is holding a grey towel that she slid up the wall.

A woman in a blue tank top and black bike shorts stands with her feet shoulder-width apart, facing a white wall. Her right arm is extended against the wall, above eye level. She is holding a grey towel that she slid up the wall.

  • Setup: To do this simple rotator cuff stretch, begin in an upright, standing position holding a towel against a wall at shoulder height.
  • Movement: Slowly slide the towel straight up the wall, straightening your elbow. Then lower it back down, and repeat.
  • Tip: Keep your back straight during the exercise and only raise your arm as far as possible without bending.

Rotator Cuff Support Exercise 3: Shoulder Blade Squeezes

The back of a person with a dark brown ponytail and blue tank top is shown. The person is standing with their arms to their sides.

A person is shown from the back with a dark brown ponytail and a blue, razor-back tank top. Arrows indicate how the person squeezes their shoulder blades to exercise their rotator cuff.

  • Setup: To perform this shoulder blade stretch, begin in an upright, standing position. Your arms should be resting at your sides.
  • Movement: Squeeze your shoulder blades together gently. Hold them for a moment, then relax them and repeat.
  • Tip: Keep your back relaxed, and be sure not to shrug your shoulders during the exercise.

Rotator Cuff Support Exercise 4: Dumbbell Lifts

A person is shown lying on her side on a black yoga mat, wearing black shorts and a blue tank top. Her knees are bent, and her arm is resting across her body.

A person in a blue tank top and black shorts is on her side on a black yoga mat with a blue cushion under her head; her knees are bent. She is extending a small dumbbell up and out with her bent arm.

  • Setup: For this rotator cuff exercise, you will need a small handheld weight. A 3–5-pound weight is a good option to start. Lie on your side with a towel roll tucked under your upper arm and your elbow bent to 90 degrees. Hold the dumbbell in your upper arm.
  • Movement: Slowly rotate your forearm upward, then return to the starting position and repeat.
  • Tip: Be sure to keep your elbow bent and tucked in at your side as you lift your forearm, and avoid shrugging your shoulders during this rotator cuff exercise.

Rotator Cuff Support Exercise 5: Reclining Arm Stretches

A man in a blue shirt and black shorts is shown lying on his side. His arms are crossed in front of him, and his head rests on a grey pillow.

A man is wearing a blue shirt and black shorts with sneakers. He’s on his side, lying on a yoga mat with a grey pillow, as he stretches a bent arm to exercise his shoulder.

  • Setup: To do this simple rotator cuff stretch, begin by lying on your side, rotated backward slightly off your shoulder, with the downside arm positioned perpendicular to your chest. Grasp the downside elbow with your top hand and the topside upper arm with the downside hand.
  • Movement: Use your topside hand to pull the elbow off the ground until you feel a stretch in the back of your shoulder. Hold and repeat.
  • Tip: Rest your head on a pillow as you do this stretch. You shouldn’t feel a pinch in the top or front of your shoulder.

Follow these rotator cuff exercises regularly to keep your shoulder healthy and strong. If you’re experiencing more severe shoulder pain, it’s time to reach out for assistance.

By addressing your shoulder pain early, you may avoid more invasive procedures, like surgery. The therapists and MOSH Physical Therapy and Hand Therapy specialize in orthopedic conditions and work closely with the MOSH surgeons to ensure you have the best treatment plan to return to a full range of motion. Contact us today to make an appointment!