female worker with rotator cuff injuryThe rotator cuff is a network of four tendons and muscles that connect to one another around your shoulder joint, enabling you to rotate your shoulder and raise your arm. If you reach overhead or lift heavy objects above the level of your shoulder in the course of your work, you could develop tendonitis or tear your rotator cuff partially or fully. When this happens, you’re generally eligible to file a claim for workers’ compensation benefits, which include payment of all your medical expenses and reimbursement of two-thirds of your lost wages. Vocational retraining is also available in some cases. An experienced workers’ comp lawyer will know how to help you pursue all the benefits you deserve.

What Is a Rotator Cuff Tear?

The rotator cuff consists of five layers of tissue, one or more of which can be torn in an accident. Symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of rotator cuff tears are discussed below.

Workers at Risk

Carpenters, house painters, delivery workers, and athletes are among the employees likely to suffer a rotator cuff tear in the course of their work activities. Employees over 40 with arthritis or previous shoulder injuries are the most susceptible, and those over 60 are the most likely to sustain complete, full-thickness tears.

Symptoms of a Rotator Cuff Tear

If you experience pain or weakness accompanied by a popping or clicking sound when you raise your arm, you could have a full or partial rotator cuff tear.

Diagnosing Your Injury

If your doctor encounters resistance or pain during a physical exam of your shoulder, you’ll probably undergo one or more of the following imaging procedures to diagnose your injury:

  • Arthroscopy
  • Arthrogram
  • Ultrasound
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

Treatment for Rotator Cuff Injuries

The imaging results will help the doctor determine how serious your shoulder injury is and which of the following courses of treatment to prescribe:

  • Rest and an arm sling will give the shoulder joint a chance to heal.
  • Ice can reduce swelling, inflammation, and pain.
  • A heating pad or hot compresses can relax muscles and lessen discomfort.
  • Physical therapy can strengthen the muscles in your shoulder.
  • Medications used to treat rotator cuff injuries include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), corticosteroid injections, and topical pain medication.

You Might Need Rotator Cuff Surgery

Surgical procedures to repair serious rotator cuff injuries include:

  • Arthroscopy. Minor tears can sometimes be repaired by inserting a small instrument into the shoulder and removing bone fragments and torn pieces of the tendons that make up the rotator cuff. Where there is a minor tear, your surgeon can perform a mini-open repair by making incisions to suture the cuff and let it heal with rest. Your recovery time after arthroscopy is relatively short in most cases.
  • Acromioplasty. The acromion, which is located at the outer edge of your shoulder blade, can impinge on the tendons in your rotator cuff, causing swelling, inflammation, and pain. Your surgeon might be able to repair this condition by shaving the acromion arthroscopically.
  • Open surgery. If the tear in your rotator cuff is too large to be repaired by acromioplasty, you could require open shoulder surgery. This procedure involves grafting tendon tissue to reconnect the torn parts of the cuff. In the most serious cases, shoulder replacement might be necessary.

Why You Should Not Delay Treatment

If you’ve had an imaging procedure that reveals a rotator cuff tear, it’s best to have it repaired as soon as possible. If you wait, the tear can get larger. In some cases, the tendon can tear away from the bone, leaving the muscles in the rotator cuff with nothing to pull against. The muscles can then atrophy and turn to fat. Repairs done at this stage of damage do not always heal well, and you could suffer ongoing shoulder issues in the future. Recovery from surgical rotator cuff repair typically takes up to six months (or longer in the case of shoulder replacement).

Accidental Injury vs. Repetitive Strain

A rotator cuff injury could occur in one moment as the result of an on-the-job accident, or it might result from repetitive strain if you carry out the same activities requiring the use of your shoulder day after day. If you work in a cold environment, use vibrating power tools, or have no opportunity to warm up or cool down your shoulder muscles before and after using them, your risk of a repetitive strain injury (RSI) increases. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires employers to follow guidelines intended to prevent RSIs. Any documented violation of these guidelines by your employer might help to strengthen your workers’ comp claim for a rotator cuff injury, as long as you can prove that it resulted from a one-time accident.

The Insurance Company’s Perspective

In general, Virginia workers’ comp does not cover RSIs, so it’s vital for you to prove your shoulder was damaged at one moment in time. Your employer’s insurer is apt to allege that your condition is not work-related, that you hurt yourself performing non-work-related activities, or that you had a pre-existing shoulder condition that caused your current rotator cuff tear. For this reason, it’s very important that you follow the steps of the workers’ comp claim process as outlined below and seek the assistance of an attorney to maximize your chances of success.

Workers’ Comp Claims Process

As soon as possible after your work-related rotator cuff injury, you should report it in writing to your supervisor. Provide details of where, when, and how your accident happened, giving names of any witnesses to the event. Your employer should submit a First Report of Injury (FROI) to the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Commission (VWC) within ten days. You may then file your claim by submitting a Claim for Benefits form from the “Injured Workers” page of the VWC website.

You should be given a choice of three physicians approved by the insurance company. Make an appointment with one of these doctors as soon as possible. Follow that doctor’s orders to the letter, keep all appointments, take all medications as prescribed, and retain receipts for all your treatments. If you’re not satisfied with your diagnosis or treatment, a workers’ comp attorney can help you request an independent exam from a doctor of your choice.

Do Not Wait to File a Claim

Although the VWC gives you 30 days to report your injury and two years to file your claim, you must not wait. Any delay on your part gives the insurance company ammunition to use against you. It could allege that your injury is not work-related and that you would have acted sooner if you were as badly hurt as you claim to be. The insurer’s team of lawyers is sure to be very good at disputing and denying claims, so you should level the playing field by consulting an attorney to help you through the claims process promptly and correctly, without any mistakes or missed deadlines.

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