Rotator Cuff Tear Vs Bursitis – Shoulder Pain Discussion

Man with white beard has shoulder pain evaluated by a board certified orthopedic surgeon for bursitis or rotator cuff injury. Premier Ortho logo at bottom center.

Sometimes, it is hard to identify the source of concentrated pain – our mind usually jumps to the worst conclusion possible. Consulting an orthopedic specialist about the area at which you are experiencing pain is the first step, but it also helps to know the symptoms of common conditions to ease your mind. In this blog, we will discuss the similarities and differences between two shoulder conditions:  a rotator cuff tear and bursitis.

The Rotator Cuff

A rotator cuff tear and bursitis are two painful conditions that have similar symptoms in similar areas. Your rotator cuff is the group of tendons and muscles that surround and support your shoulder joint. A rotator cuff tear occurs when you tear a tendon that connects the bone to muscle around your shoulder.

Symptoms of a rotator cuff tear include:

  • Pain in the shoulder area
  • Stiffness
  • Muscle weakness
  • Cracking sensation in shoulder
  • Mobility difficulties like difficulty putting on a jacket, brushing your hair, reaching behind you, etc.


Throughout your body are little sacs of fluid called bursae. The purpose of a bursa is to reduce friction between soft and hard tissues in the body – the major bursae being located at the large joints such as knee, hip, shoulder, elbow, etc. If there is too much friction between a bone and soft tissue, a bursa reacts by becoming inflamed. The bursa tries to create additional cushioning to reduce friction but can then develop inflammation or even infection – either way, this is referred to as bursitis. Bursitis can be chronic, infected, or traumatic depending on how it is caused.

Symptoms of shoulder bursitis include:

  • Shoulder pain
  • Pain after activity
  • Shoulder tenderness
  • Muscle weakness
  • Pain with range of motion
  • Fever or warmth around affected area

As you can see, it could be hard to tell the difference between the two conditions due to the overlap in symptoms.

Treatment for Rotator Cuff and Bursitis Issues

Treatment for a rotator cuff tear depends on the severity of the rip. If you ignore the pain caused by this shoulder condition and continue to use it as if nothing is wrong, you could potentially make the tear worse. Around 80% of people can benefit from non-surgical treatment methods such as rest, physical therapy, or medication to heal this type of injury. If nonsurgical methods are unsuccessful, you may have to undergo surgical repair, where the tendon is reattached to the bone.

Depending on the type of bursitis you have, the treatment will vary. Chronic bursitis treatment usually entails activity restriction, icing, and medications to reduce swelling. With an infected bursa, your doctor will sample the liquid to see if it is indeed infected. An antibiotic will be prescribed to help with the infection. Traumatic bursitis is treated by a combination of removing fluid from the affected area as well as rest, ice, and anti-inflammatory medications.

The Bottom Line

A medical diagnosis is needed to confirm what condition is causing your shoulder pain, so don’t jump to conclusions. If your pain lingers or worsens, you should schedule an appointment with your orthopedic surgeon to assess the injury and have it treated before it gets worse.

If you are experiencing shoulder pain or pain in other joints around your body, schedule an appointment with us. The specialists at Premier Ortho have extensive experience diagnosing and treating joint injuries of all kinds.