Have you been experiencing a sensation of shortness of breath that seems connected to your rotator cuff problem?

Many people with rotator cuff injuries may be wondering if an insult to any of these four tendons can somehow, someway, impact the ability to breathe.

“Shortness of breath” is what one experiences when their heart struggles to pump enough blood for the demands of a physical activity.

This phenomenon occurs in people with chronic heart failure or other heart disease, but it also occurs with elite athletes, since every body has a limit as far as how hard the heart can work (e.g., trying to break the national record in the 1,500 meter run).

It can also occur when the body isn’t efficient – or adequately trained – at extracting oxygen from blood cells that working muscles desperately need. This process is improved with aerobic exercise.

“Difficulty breathing” is different from feeling short of breath.

When one has trouble breathing, this is a mechanical issue with the ability to inhale and/or exhale, which can be caused by asthma or pain with every breath from, for instance, a broken rib.

Difficulty getting air in with each breath can also happen when the airway narrows due to a vocal cord dysfunction.

So how, then, can an injury to the rotator cuff, or shoulder impingement syndrome, possibly cause either shortness of breath or difficulty with breathing?

“While a rotator cuff injury can cause pain and limited mobility in the shoulder, it is not typically associated with shortness of breath,” says Christopher R. Sforzo, MD, head surgeon and founder, Sforzo Dillingham Stewart Orthopedics + Sports Medicine.

This is not to be confused with phrenic nerve injury from a nerve block anesthetic that’s used during shoulder surgery.

The phrenic nerve controls the diaphragm, which is the muscle used in breathing.

Injury to this nerve, then, can impact breathing. But this is due to the anesthetic drug, rather than something inherent in the shoulder itself.

“Shortness of breath may indicate a more serious underlying medical condition that requires immediate medical attention,” says Dr. Sforzo.

If you’ve been having unexplained shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, you do NOT want to convince yourself that it’s related to your rotator cuff issue – even if both symptoms appeared at around the same time.

Christopher R. Sforzo, MD, is a board certified orthopedic surgeon, providing treatment of problems involving the shoulder, arm, elbow, forearm, wrist and hand. He performs many procedures using minimally invasive techniques including endoscopic carpal tunnel release, arthroscopic rotator cuff repair, and arthroscopic wrist and elbow procedures.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer. 


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