Applied Evidence

Conservative care or surgery for rotator cuff tears?

Author and Disclosure Information

Selecting the appropriate Tx for the patient’s circumstances— including age, activity level, and the size and depth of the tear—boosts the chances of a favorable outcome.


› Offer a trial of ­conservative management to patients with chronic, nontraumatic, or partial-thickness ­rotator cuff injury and to those who are poor surgical candidates. B

› Counsel patients that the rate of surgical ­complications is low and outcomes are favorable in properly selected patients for operative repair of rotator cuff tear. B

Strength of recommendation (SOR)

A Good-quality patient-oriented evidence
B Inconsistent or limited-quality patient-oriented evidence
C Consensus, usual practice, opinion, disease-oriented evidence, case series



Rotator cuff disease accounts for as many as 65% of shoulder-related visits to physicians’ offices,1 yet the natural course of rotator cuff tears is still not well understood.2 Treatment options are controversial because both conservative and surgical management have been successful. Physical therapy is a durable and reliable treatment option, but there are concerns about long-term progression of the tear.3 Surgical arthroscopic techniques, which result in less morbidity than open surgery, have improved overall surgical care; as such, the rate of rotator cuff procedures has increased significantly.4

Our goal in this article is to provide clinical guidance to the primary care provider. We review management options for rotator cuff injury; summarize considerations for proceeding with conservative or surgical management; and discuss surgical risks and complications.

Conservative management: Who is most likely to benefit?

The choice of treatment for rotator cuff injury depends on a host of variables, including shoulder dominance, duration of symptoms, type of tear (partial or full), age, demands (activity level, occupation, sport), and comorbidities (diabetes, tobacco use). Treatment goals include resolution of pain, normalized range of motion and strength, and restored arm and shoulder function.5

Initial nonoperative management is indicated in patients who

  • have a partial-thickness tear (a notable exception is young patients with traumatic injury),6
  • have lower functional demands and moderate symptoms, or
  • refuse surgery.7

Patients who respond to nonoperative management will, typically, do so within 6 to 12 weeks.5,8

Few randomized, controlled trials have compared conservative and surgical management of rotator cuff tears; furthermore, the findings of these studies have been mixed. Nonoperative management has been shown to be the favored initial treatment for isolated, symptomatic, nontraumatic, supraspinatus tears in older patients.9 In a recent study,10 5-year outcomes were examined in a prospective cohort enrolled in a rotator cuff treatment program: Approximately 75% of patients remained successfully treated with nonoperative management, and clinical outcomes of the operative and nonoperative groups were not significantly different at 5-year follow-up. Investigators concluded that nonoperative treatment is effective for many patients who have a chronic, full-­thickness rotator cuff tear.

In a study investigating the treatment of degenerative rotator cuff tear, patients were randomly treated using an operative or nonoperative protocol. No differences in functional outcomes were observed at 1 year after treatment; however, surgical treatment significantly improved subjective parameters of pain and disability.11 A similar study suggested statistically significant improvement in outcomes for patients managed operatively, compared with those treated nonoperatively, but differences in shoulder outcome and the visual analog pain score were small and failed to meet thresholds considered clinically significant. Larger studies, with longer follow-up, are required to determine whether clinical differences between these types of treatment become more evident over time.12

Continue to: A look at nonoperative options and outcomes


Next Article: