You’ve been diagnosed with a rotator cuff tear. Now what? Is surgery your best bet for a full recovery? New research suggests not. There is strong evidence to suggest that up to 75% of non-traumatic (not caused by a fall, lifting a heavy object, etc.) rotator cuff tears can be treated successfully with physical therapy alone.
First, let’s understand what the rotator cuff is. Often mistakenly pronounced as the “rotary cup”, the rotator cuff is actually a group of four muscles that connect the shoulder blade to the arm (humerus). These muscles include the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor and subscapularis. The main job of the rotator cuff muscles is to keep the shoulder joint stable. Most commonly, rotator cuff injuries occur with repetitive overhead movements, such as throwing, painting, construction and stocking shelves. Postural changes, arthritic changes in the joint, and muscle tightness and weakness can lead to the wearing down of the rotator cuff tendons over time as they rub against bony structures in the joint or repeatedly absorb excessive force, leading to a rotator cuff tear.
The most common treatment options at this time for rotator cuff tear is either rehabilitation with physical therapy alone or with surgical intervention.
How do you know what is the best option for you? A 2014 study in the Bone and Joint Journal, and a 2013 study published in the Journal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery both report similar long-term outcomes in patients with full-thickness rotator cuff tears and non-traumatic supraspinatus tears when comparing patients who choose only conservative treatment with physical therapy to those who undergo surgery followed by a rehabilitation program.
This research indicates that physical therapy is an excellent treatment option to consider before choosing surgery to treat non-traumatic rotator cuff tears. Physical therapy treatments consist of helping to restore range of motion to your shoulder, improving joint mobility, increasing strength and stability of the shoulder complex, addressing pain and soft tissue restrictions, and designing treatments to be able to return you to all of your regular activities.
If you have shoulder pain, be sure to discuss seeing a Physical Therapist with your physician.