You Don't Need Surgery for a Rotator Cuff Tear

Zachary Walston

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As we learn more about pain, we realize surgery often isn't the answer.

A 2019 research review found surgery is a poor treatment choice for chronic pain. The study found surgery is no better than a sham procedure - going under anesthesia and receiving cut on the skin but nothing else - for multiple regions of the body. Whether you are receiving surgery for low back pain, knee arthritis, angina, abdominal pain, endometriosis, biliary colic, or migraines, surgery does not appear to be the answer.

Add rotator cuff tears to the list.

Multiple studies have shown surgery is not necessary for rotator cuff tears. A recent study found physical therapy alone can do the trick.

A 2021 study divided patients with confirmed supraspinatus tear (one of the four rotator cuff muscles) on MRI into three treatment groups.

The physical therapy group received 10 outpatient sessions. In addition to the in-person sessions, the patients were provided instructions — written and verbal — for at-home exercise.

“The first six weeks of the exercise protocol aimed at improving glenohumeral motion and active scapular retraction, after which static and dynamic exercises to improve scapular and glenohumeral muscle function were gradually increased until twelve weeks. After this, the patient increased resistance and strength training up to six months.” - study protocol

Group two received an acromioplasty - a procedure where part of the top part of the shoulder blade  is shaved. Some people in group two also receive a biceps tenotomy, acromioclavicular, or both if indicated. Physical therapy was started immediately after the surgery.

Group three received the acromioplasty (and tenotomy and/or AC resection when indicated) and a rotator cuff repair. Physical therapy was started after three weeks of immobilization in a sling and three weeks of active shoulder motion.

The average rotator cuff tear was 10.1 mm in group 1 (PT only), 9.6 mm in group two (PT and acromiopasty), and 8.5 mm in group three (everything). Following a 5-year follow-up, there were no differences in pain or function between the three groups. All three groups had high and similar satisfaction scores.

This research builds off previous research that concluded surgery is not the answer for rotator cuff tears. How is that possible? First, surgery does not address the causes of chronic pain. Pain is more complex than tissue damage. Surgery doesn't change the psychosocial components of pain such as anxiety, fear, and stress. Our emotional state and overall health plays a large role in the pain we feel.

Second, rehabilitation can restore strength lost following a tear. Surgery doesn't grow muscle or restore tendon and ligament integrity. Only activity can do that. In some cases, when a tear is large enough, surgery may be the answer. But even ACL tears are being rehabbed successfully without surgery.

Before going under the knife, be sure to explore all of your options.

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I am a physical therapist, researcher, and educator whose mission is to challenge health misinformation. You will find articles about health, fitness, medical care, psychology, and professional development on my site. As the husband of a real estate agent, you will also find real estate and housing tips.

Atlanta, GA
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