Rotator cuff tears may be partial or full thickness tears. They may occur as part of a degenerative process where the tendon progressively becomes weaker and wears out or they may be precipitated by impingement. Rotator cuff tears may also occur in relation to acute injuries such as a fall onto the shoulder or other injury.
Symptoms of rotator cuff tears are similar to those of tendinitis and they are frequently associated with symptoms of bursitis and impingement.
Frequently pain will be felt down the outer aspect of your arm. The shoulder invariably aches at night-time and often you will have trouble sleeping because of the pain that you experience. Patients will get impingement symptoms which occur when you lift your arm away from your body. This typically occurs when the arm is approximately 90 degrees away from the body. Impingement pain is a sharp catching pain. The arm will usually feel weak and if the tear is large then you may have trouble lifting the arm up. Patients may develop wasting of the muscles around the shoulder.
In a small percentage of patients, long standing untreated rotator cuff tears can progress to arthritis in the shoulder and require joint replacement surgery.
Treatment will depend on the type of tear and the tendon that is affected. The most commonly affected is the supraspinatus tendon, however tears of the infraspinatus and subscapularis tendons also occur frequently.
Tears in the rotator cuff are usually treated non-operatively with steroid injections and physiotherapy in an attempt to control symptoms. However, for full thickness tears surgical treatment is often undertaken.
Partial thickness tears tend to be treated non-operatively prior to any surgery being considered. Surgery for a minor partial thickness tear will often involve a simple debridement of the tear. Debridement involves trimming the frayed edges of the tear back to healthy tissue in order to allow it to heal itself. If the tear is substantial and large surgery will typically involve the repair of the tendon back to the bone.
Acute full thickness tears in patients who are still working or playing sport and wish to continue to do so, will often need to be repaired surgically before successfully returning to work or to recreational pastimes. Surgery for a full thickness tear involves reattaching the tendon back to the bone and will normally be performed in conjunction with an acromioplasty.