A mechanical deficit due to a massive rotator cuff tear is generally concurrent to a pain-induced decrease of maximum arm elevation and peak elevation torque. The purpose of this study was to measure shoulder muscle coordination in patients with massive cuff tears, including the effect of subacromial pain suppression. Ten patients, with MRI-proven cuff tears, performed an isometric force task in which they were asked to exert a force in 24 equidistant intervals in a plane perpendicular to the humerus. By means of bi-polar surface electromyography (EMG) the direction of the maximal muscle activation or principal action of six muscles, as well as the external force, were identified prior to, and after subacromial pain suppression. Subacromial lidocaine injection led to a significant reduction of pain and a significant increase in exerted arm force. Prior to the pain suppression, we observed an activation pattern of the arm adductors (pectoralis major pars clavicularis and/or latissimus dorsi and/or teres major) during abduction force delivery in eight patients. In these eight patients, adductor activation was different from the normal adductor activation pattern. Five out of these eight restored this aberrant activity (partly) in one or more adductor muscles after subacromial lidocaine injection. Absence of glenoid directed forces of the supraspinate muscle and compensation for the lost supraspinate abduction torque by the deltoideus leads to destabilizating forces in the glenohumeral joint, with subsequent upward translation of the humeral head and pain. In order to reduce the superior translation force, arm adductors will be co-activated at the cost of arm force and abduction torque. Pain seems to be the key factor in this (avoidance) mechanism, explaining the observed limitations in arm force and limitations in maximum arm elevation in patients suffering subacromial pathologies. Masking this pain may further deteriorate the subacromial tissues as a result of proximal migration of the humeral head and subsequent impingement of subacromial tissues. © 2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.