Rotator Cuff Injuries in the Workplace 101
By Michele Lewane
You don’t realize just how much you use your shoulder until you injure it.
Unfortunately, that’s a realization people come to all the time. Shoulder injuries are among the most common in the workplace. In fact, in many industries, shoulder pain outranks back pain as the #1 symptom of occupational injury.
At the heart of the shoulder is the rotator cuff, a group of four muscles surrounding the shoulder joint.
Essentially, the rotator cuff keeps the shoulder bones in place within their joint while you move. True to its name, the rotator cuff makes it possible for you to rotate your arm (and shoulder) smoothly, stably, and painlessly.
When the rotator cuff is injured, it becomes very difficult to carry out daily tasks. The pain and restriction can be debilitating, making it impossible to do your job.
That’s frustrating, especially given that rotator cuff injuries often happen because of your job.
In those cases, you may be entitled to worker’s compensation benefits. On-the-job rotator cuff injuries are serious, and there is a system in place to help you stay on your feet while you recover.
But when do workplace rotator cuff injuries qualify for workers’ comp? How do these injuries happen in the first place? And how do you know when you’re dealing with a shoulder injury, as opposed to ordinary soreness?
Here’s what you need to know.
Symptoms of a Rotator Cuff Injury
We tend to think of “the shoulder” as a singular unit. In reality, it is made up of many moving parts. Even within the rotator cuff (one part of the shoulder), there are multiple muscles and ligaments.
The complexity of the shoulder makes it easy to injure. Symptoms of a rotator cuff injury can manifest differently in different people. They include:
• Shoulder pain (which may get worse when reaching up, moving the arms or shoulder, or lying on the shoulder)
• Weakness or stiffness in the shoulder
• Reduced range of motion in the shoulder
• Difficulty performing ordinary tasks, such as lifting or driving
• Feeling like you would rather not move your shoulder
Occasionally, pain in the shoulder is actually coming from somewhere else in the body. This is called “referred pain,” and in rare cases, it could be the sign of serious disease or a medical emergency.
Because you cannot safely diagnose yourself, you should seek a doctor’s care as soon as possible.
Employment Risk Factors for Rotator Cuff Injuries
Think only factory workers and hard laborers are at risk for shoulder injuries? Think again! Office workers, teachers, waiters, cashiers, and many, many other types of workers can sustain rotator cuff injuries in the course of their job duties.
Common work-related causes of an injured rotator cuff include (but are not limited to):
• Lifting or carrying
• Pushing or pulling
• Working in awkward positions / postures
• Frequently working with your hands above your shoulders
• Repetitive motions
• Using power tools
• Using heavy machinery
• Slip and fall accidents
Does an Injured Rotator Cuff Qualify for Worker’s Compensation?
In many cases, yes. The rules of eligibility for worker’s compensation benefits vary from state to state. Whether you qualify for compensation will depend on the nature of your injury, what caused it, and the applicable rules in your particular state.
As a general rule, the relevant question in a worker’s compensation claim is whether the injury arose out of and in the course of your job duties. As we have seen, this is not uncommon in the case of an injured shoulder.
Additionally, to qualify, your employer must be subject to workers’ comp requirements (many are). And the injury itself must be covered by your state’s workers’ compensation guidelines (as many rotator cuff injuries are).
The best way to find out whether you might be entitled to worker’s compensation benefits is to talk directly with an experienced workers’ comp lawyer in your state.
These claims can be complex, and it isn’t uncommon for them to be wrongfully denied — sometimes because of preventable errors by the victim during the claims process. Talking with a lawyer can help you understand the process and your rights.
Don’t shrug off a shoulder injury. Get medical attention and talk to an attorney right away.
Michele Lewane is a seasoned courtroom litigator with more than 25 years of experience as a worker’s compensation lawyer in Virginia. Managing Partner of the Injured Workers Law Firm in Richmond, VA, she has a long track record of getting injured employees the full and fair compensation they deserve.