Fishermen and Rotator Cuff Injuries

By Michaela Marden, Masters Occupational Therapist Student, USM
Also published by Commercial Fisheries News November 2021

FishAbility: Fishermen and Rotator Cuff Injuries

Shoulder and back injuries are commonly reported by fishermen. The movement of a boat on rough seas and inclement weather conditions can increase risk of a traumatic injury, and more specifically to the rotator cuff. The rotator cuff is a series of muscles in the shoulder that form a cuff of tissue around the humerus bone in the shoulder joint. A tear may be suspected if you are experiencing general shoulder pain, weakness, and/or loss of range of motion, especially with overhead movement or external, extended rotation.  The strenuous and repetitive motions of hauling lobster buoys, turning oyster bags, and lifting crates are examples of ways a fisherman’s rotator cuff could be injured or begin to degenerate.

There are two main causes of rotator cuff tears: injury and degeneration. An injury to the rotator cuff may happen suddenly when falling on an outstretched hand, or it may develop over time due to repetitive activities. Rotator cuff tears may also happen due to aging, with degeneration of the tissues.

Symptoms can vary, so if a tear is suspected, a comprehensive assessment should be performed by your primary care provider.  A general rule to help prevent injuries like rotator cuff tears is to work smarter, not harder. Some ways of doing this are:

  • Using proper body positioning – lifting closer to the body rather than with outstretched arms.
  • Conserving energy by using gravity to your advantage, and taking purposeful rest breaks.

These small adjustments to daily work and being proactive in addressing pain can make a big difference in reducing the risk of serious and painful shoulder injuries like rotator cuff tear.  Having a good stretching routine and gentle strength training exercises are crucial to keeping the shoulders ‘well oiled.’ Maine FishAbility is working on developing stretches like these specifically for fishermen.  For More Information, visit Maine FishAbility, part of the Maine AgrAbility program:

Port Clyde’s John Cotton

overhead view looking onto boat where several large fish have been landed nad are being processed by to fishermenJohn Cotton, owner of Ice House Seafood, is a lobsterman, fisherman, and aquaculture farmer specializing in oysters and kelp. 

What do you like most about your work?

Being outside and always seeing something new, rarely do you go out and not see something new. I’m the first in my family to be a commercial fisherman, but there was just nothing I could do about it, it’s the way I was born.

What are the hardest parts of your jobs?

Lifting anything–crates, kelp, buoys, just constantly using my back and shoulders. They’re worn out from 35+ years of working in the industry.

Do you have pain or conditions that work aggravates?

Arthritis in my hands, compressed lower back disks, and a rotator cuff tear. Shoulder and low back pain are common in fishermen, and our daily, repetitive tasks just aggravate these types of injuries.

Do you have any tips or tricks to share with other fishermen?

Sleeping and eating well are key to taking care of yourself.

What’s the one thing you can’t leave the dock without?

My lunchbox.

Do you have a favorite piece of equipment?

My Boat.