A Patient’s Guide to Calcific Tendonitis of the Shoulder
Calcific tendonitis of the shoulder happens when calcium deposits form on the tendons of your shoulder. The tissues around the deposit can become inflamed, causing a great deal of shoulder pain. This condition is fairly common. It most often affects people over the age of 40.
This guide will help you understand
- what happens in the shoulder with calcific tendonitis
- what tests your doctor will run to diagnose this condition
- what you can do to help relieve the pain.
Which part of the shoulder is affected?
Calcific tendonitis occurs in the tendons (tendons attach muscles to bones) of the rotator cuff. The rotator cuff is actually made up of several tendons that connect the muscles around your shoulder to the humerus (the larger bone of the upper arm).
Calcium deposits usually form on the tendon in the rotator cuff called the supraspinatus tendon.
There are two different types of calcific tendonitis of the shoulder: degenerative calcification and reactive calcification. The wear and tear of aging is the primary cause of degenerative calcification. As we age, blood flow to the tendons of the rotator cuff decreases. This makes the tendon weaker. Due to the wear and tear as we use our shoulder, the fibers of the tendons begin to fray and tear, just like a worn-out rope. Calcium deposits form in the damaged tendons as a part of the healing process.
Reactive calcification is different. Why it occurs is not clear. It doesn’t seem to be related to degeneration, though it is more likely to cause shoulder pain than degenerative calcification. Doctors think of reactive calcification in three stages. In the pre-calcific stage, the tendon changes in ways that make calcium deposits more likely to form. In the calcific stage, calcium crystals are deposited in the tendons. Then they begin to disappear. The body simply reabsorbs the calcium deposits. Ironically, it is during this stage that pain is most likely to occur. In the post-calcific stage, the body heals the tendon, and the tendon is remodeled with new tissue.
No one knows what triggers the body to reabsorb the deposits. But once this occurs and the tissue begins to be remodeled, the pain usually decreases or goes away altogether.
Related Document: A Patient’s Guide to Shoulder Anatomy
Why did I develop calcific tendonitis?
No one really knows what causes calcific tendonitis. Severe wear and tear, aging, or a combination of the two are involved in degenerative calcification. Some researchers think that calcium deposits form because there is not enough oxygen to the tendon tissues. Others feel that pressure on the tendons can damage them, causing the calcium deposits to form.
Reactive calcification is even more of a mystery. This type of problem occurs in younger patients and seems to go away by itself in many cases.
What are the symptoms of this condition?
While the calcium is being deposited, you may feel only mild to moderate pain, or even no pain at all. For some unknown reason, calcific tendonitis becomes very painful when the deposits are being reabsorbed. The pain and stiffness of calcific tendonitis can cause you to lose motion in your shoulder. Lifting your arm may become painful. At its most severe, the pain may interfere with your sleep.
What tests will Dr. Kiritsis run?
Dr. Kiritsis will take a detailed medical history and do a thorough physical exam of your shoulder. The pain of calcific tendonitis can be confused with other conditions that cause shoulder pain. An X-ray is usually necessary to confirm the presence of calcium deposits. The X-ray will also help pinpoint the exact location of the deposits.
How can I get my pain under control?
Dr. Kiritsis’ first goal will be to help control your pain and inflammation. Initial treatment is likely to be rest and anti-inflammatory medication, such as ibuprofen. The anti-inflammatory medicine is used mainly to control pain. Dr. Kiritsis will often suggest a cortisone injection if your pain stays severe even after trying other nonsurgical treatments. Cortisone is a very powerful steroid. Cortisone can be very effective at temporarily easing inflammation and swelling.
Dr. Kiritsis will probably have a physical or occupational therapist direct your rehabilitation program. At first, therapy focuses on easing your pain and inflammation. Treatments may include heat or ice. Therapists may apply ultrasound treatments. Ultrasound has shown some benefit in reducing the size of the deposit and in helping people have less pain and better arm function. However, to get the full benefit, ultrasound treatments must be repeated often (up to 24 times) in a six-week period.
If the pain and loss of movement continue to get worse or interfere with your daily life, you may need surgery. Surgery for calcific tendonitis does not require patients to stay in the hospital overnight. It does require anesthesia.
Surgeries to correct calcific tendonitis of the shoulder are arthroscopic surgeries. The arthroscope is a special TV camera that can be inserted into the shoulder joint through a small incision in the skin. Other small incisions allow Dr. Kiritsis to insert small surgical instruments into the joint as well. Dr. Kiritsis uses the arthroscope to locate the calcium deposit in the rotator cuff tendon. Once the deposit is found, he uses the small instruments to resect (remove) the calcium deposits and rinse the area. Loose calcium crystals must be removed. They can be very irritating to the surrounding tissues.
What should I expect after treatment?
Even if you don’t need surgery, you may need to follow a program of rehabilitation exercises. Dr. Kiritsis may recommend that you work with a physical or occupational therapist for four to six weeks. Your therapist can create an individualized program of strengthening and stretching for your shoulder.
It is very important to strengthen the muscles of the rotator cuff, as these muscles help control the stability of the shoulder joint. Strengthening these muscles can actually decrease the pressure on the calcium deposits in the tendon. Your therapist can also evaluate your workstation or the way you use your body when you do your activities and suggest changes. Simple changes in the way you sit or stand can ease pain and help you avoid further problems.
Rehabilitation after shoulder surgery can be a slow process. You will probably need to attend therapy sessions for six to eight weeks, and you should expect full recovery to take three to four months. Getting the shoulder moving as soon as possible is important. However, this must be balanced with the need to protect the healing tissues.
Dr. Kiritsis will have you wear a sling to support and protect the shoulder for a few days after surgery. If he repaired the rotator cuff after removing the calcification, use of the sling will be extended for typically six weeks. Ice and electrical stimulation treatments may be used during your first few therapy sessions to help control pain and swelling from the surgery. Your therapist may also use massage and other types of hands-on treatments to ease muscle spasm and pain.
Therapy can progress quickly after a simple arthroscopic resection. Treatments start out with range-of-motion exercises and gradually work into active stretching and strengthening. You just need to be careful to avoid doing too much, too quickly.
Active therapy starts soon after surgery. You use your own muscle power in active range-of-motion exercises. You may begin with light isometric strengthening exercises. These exercises work the muscles without straining the healing tissues.
At about six weeks you start doing heavier strengthening. Exercises focus on improving the strength and control of the rotator cuff muscles and the muscles around the shoulder blade. Your therapist will help you retrain these muscles to keep the ball of the humerus in the socket. This helps your shoulder move smoothly during all your activities.
Some of the exercises you’ll do are designed get your shoulder working in ways that are similar to your work tasks and sport activities. Your therapist will help you find ways to do your tasks that don’t put too much stress on your shoulder. Before your therapy sessions end, your therapist will teach you a number of ways to avoid future problems.