The main symptom of any rotator cuff injury is pain. If you have structural damage from a tear then it’s likely you’ll have weakness and difficulty moving the shoulder, which won’t get any better no matter how high you lift your arm. It’s worth noting that some older patients may have been living with a rotator cuff tear for many years, but have never had symptoms. This in itself may not require treatment, but if an impact then starts to cause pain, then different treatment options will be explored.
In contrast, although you will still experience pain with an impingement issue, this is usually worse in the mid-arc point when you raise your arm around shoulder height. Once you move past this particular point, the arm will often move more freely again. It’s important to note that pain is often not felt at the exact source of the issue. Many patients describe feeling pain in the upper arm, which is a classic sign of what we call “referred pain” from the shoulder. The pain may settle down after a while, but a trigger such as lifting something onto a shelf can cause your symptoms to flare up again.
In both cases you can also expect some swelling and a dull aching sensation when it’s aggravated. Many patients also describe difficulty sleeping at night, so the injury can be both intrusive and frustrating.