Applied Evidence

Conservative care or surgery for rotator cuff tears?

Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, Penn State College of Medicine, Departments of Family Medicine and Orthopaedics, Hershey, PA
[email protected]

The authors reported no potential conflict of interest relevant to this article.



TABLE 121,22 highlights variables that influence the decision to proceed, or not to proceed, with operative intervention. Because enlargement of a tear usually exacerbates symptoms,23 patients with a tear who are successfully managed nonoperatively should be counseled on the potential of the tear to progress.

What are the surgical options?

Little clinical evidence favors one exposure technique over another. This equivalency has been demonstrated by a systematic review of randomized controlled trials comparing arthroscopic and mini-open rotator cuff repair, which showed no difference in function, pain, or range of motion.24 That conclusion notwithstanding, arthroscopic repair is increasingly popular because it results in less pain, initially, and faster return to work.20

There is controversy among surgeons regarding the choice of fixation technique: Tendons can be secured using 1 or 2 rows of anchors (FIGURE). Advocates of single-row repair cite shorter surgical time, decreased cost, and equivalent outcomes; surgeons who favor double-row, or so-called transosseous-equivalent, repair claim that it provides better restoration of normal anatomy and biomechanical superiority.25,26

Regardless of technique, most patients are immobilized for 4 to 6 weeks postoperatively.27 Physical therapy usually commences within the first week or 2 postop, limited to passive motion for 6 to 12 weeks. Active motion and strengthening of rotator-cuff muscles often is initiated by 3 months postop, although this phase is sometimes delayed because of concern over slow tendon ­healing. Typically, patients make a full return to sports and manual work at 6 months postop. Patients experience most symptomatic improvement during the first 6 months following surgery, although functional gains can be realized for as long as 2 years after surgery.28

If a patient is going to respond to nonoperative management at all, they typically do so in 6 to 12 weeks.

Most torn rotator cuffs can be fixed back to the greater tuberosity, but some chronic, massive, retracted tears lack the mobility to be repaired, or re-tear shortly after repair. Over time, the humeral head in a rotator cuff–deficient shoulder can migrate superiorly to abut the undersurface of the acromion, which can lead to significant glenohumeral osteoarthritis. To prevent or remedy elevation of the humeral head, salvage procedures—debridement, partial repair, spanning graft, tendon transfer, superior capsule reconstruction, balloon arthroplasty, reverse total shoulder replacement—can be used to alleviate pain and restore function. These procedures have significant limitations, however, and usually provide less favorable outcomes than standard repair.29-35

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