Friday, October 21, 2016


“Rotator cuff” is a familiar phrase, often heard in the context of a sports injury. I never even knew what a rotator cuff was until recently: a group of muscles and tendons that connect the shoulder blade to the humerus, where they form a sort of cuff. You use them to move your shoulder, and rotate it.

I know now because I tore my rotator cuff last May. I didn't know it at the time; it seemed an insignificant bike mishap, more embarrassing than anything else.

I had just emerged from a guitar store with a new set of strings tucked into my backpack. Wore new road bike shoes. Unlocked the bike, clicked my left foot into the pedal, placed my right foot on the ground. Rolled forward toward the street. Hit a bump. Toppled slowly to my left, unable to extract foot from pedal to catch myself. Hit the ground.

It’s my left shoulder. I may not know much about rotator cuffs, or which part of mine is torn. But I do know there’s a long list of ordinary things I am, at present, unable to do without serious pain. I can’t put on a shirt, or tuck it in; can’t put on a jacket or a backpack; can’t stretch and yawn; can’t extend my left arm above my head – can't do any of it pain free. There’s a bunch of other stuff, too. I do these things anyway, but if I’m not careful, it hurts like hell.

At first I thought: give it a week or two and it will heal. But before May was out, I accepted that a trip to the doctor was in order. I’ve seen this doctor before and like him, though I do not entirely trust Western medicine. He ruled out any broken bones but did not detect the rotator cuff tear. His prescribed treatment? Handfuls of Advil.

In spite of intermittent, stabbing shoulder pain, I enjoyed an ordinary summer. Kept riding my bike. Never did try the Advil cure, but it wouldn’t have helped. Finally, on the last day of September, I saw a second doctor. She diagnosed the tear and wanted me to have an MRI, but the insurance company said no. So she handed me off to a third doctor, an orthopedic surgeon.

This doctor also diagnosed a torn rotator cuff. An MRI, he said, would confirm it, and pinpoint the affected area. What about the insurance company? I asked. Worry not, the doc replied. Shoulders are my specialty. My word carries great weight.

That was Tuesday afternoon, 10-18. On Wednesday morning I received a phone call from Boulder MRI to set up the procedure: the following Monday afternoon, contingent on insurance company approval.

In between these May and September doctor visits I began seeing a massage therapist – chair massages at a local natural foods store. She's helped a lot, working out various knots and giving plenty of attention to my shoulder. It's chased away some of the pain, but wasn’t the magic bullet I thought it might be. Torn is torn. I believe in massage therapy, though, and still see her once a week.

Treatment for a rotator cuff tear is either physical therapy, or surgery.

I’m counting down to Monday.

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