Sports Medicine Research: In the Lab & In the Field: Evolution of Nonoperatively Treated Symptomatic Isolated Full-Thickness Supraspinatus Tears (Sports Med Res)


Monday, June 4, 2012

Evolution of Nonoperatively Treated Symptomatic Isolated Full-Thickness Supraspinatus Tears

Evolution of Nonoperatively Treated Symptomatic Isolated Full-Thickness Supraspinatus Tears

Fucentese SF, von Roll AL, Pfirrmann CWA, Gerber C, Jost B. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 2012;94:801-8.

Limited data exists to guide clinicians in prescribing treatment for patients with rotator cuff tears.  It is believed that without surgery, rotator cuff tears will progress in size; however, few studies have investigated this theory of tear progression in small (single tendon) rotator cuff tears.  In this study, 24 patients (20 male, 4 female; 20 traumatic etiology, 4 degenerative etiology; mean age 52 years, range 39-61 years) who had been diagnosed with a full-thickness supraspinatus tear but declined surgery were reevaluated at a median of forty-two months post-diagnosis using MRI and functional Constant and Murley scoring.  Functional scoring included subjective variables (pain, daily living, etc.), objective assessment of shoulder motion, and quantitative measurement of abduction strength.  Interestingly, the tear size on average did not increase over time; in 16 of 24 patients, the tear size, measured from MRI images, remained unchanged or even decreased.  The initial tear size of patients whose tear did progress was no different from those whose tear did not progress, contrasting the traditional belief that tear size is a predominating factor in predicting tear progression.  When examining the supraspinatus muscle, fatty infiltration, measured using an MRI-adapted version of the Goutallier score, did increase and was greatest in larger tears.  Functionally, the flexion, abduction, and external rotation angles remained unchanged from initial diagnosis.  Correlations were not found between follow-up tear size and pain, abduction strength, or subjective shoulder score.  Additionally, there were no correlations between fatty infiltration and abduction strength. 

It is commonly believed that all rotator cuff tears are at risk for tear propagation, making surgery the recommended treatment.  This is the first clinical study that suggests isolated supraspinatus tears may not always increase in tear size, challenging the recommendation for surgery.  The number of traumatic versus degenerative cases studied was skewed towards traumatic etiology.  While the authors did not investigate potential differences between these groups (likely due to the low number of degenerative etiology patients), one may question whether an increased sample size would reveal differences that would imply different treatments for traumatic and chronic tears.  It is of concern that the fatty infiltration increased over time.  This finding indicates that while the tendon tear may not have progressed, muscle degeneration has occurred; however, this did not correlate with abduction strength, and shoulder function did not worsen over time.  On the other hand, even with surgical repair, fatty infiltration has been shown to be irreversible.  This article is another example of how little is known about rotator cuff tendon tears and both tendon and muscle degeneration.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the authors were unable to identify correlations between pain and other parameters that they measured (similar to previous studies), highlighting the need for research in this area.  Clinically, have you noticed differences in how patients with tears due to a traumatic event respond to treatment compared to those due to chronic degeneration?  Given that fatty infiltration may continue to slightly advance despite the lack of tear progression, would you still recommend conservative (non-surgical) treatment?  Overall, what treatment plan do you recommend to your patients with full-thickness, isolated supraspinatus tears?

Written by: Sarah Ilkhani-Pour
Reviewed by:  Stephen Thomas

Related Posts:

Fucentese SF, von Roll AL, Pfirrmann CW, Gerber C, & Jost B (2012). Evolution of nonoperatively treated symptomatic isolated full-thickness supraspinatus tears. The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery. American volume, 94 (9), 801-8 PMID: 22552669


live sports said...

nice work

Kale Songy said...

One question I have about this study is how active the individuals studied were after their rotator cuff tear. I also noticed that the mean age was 52. I wonder if these patients opted to not get the rotator cuff repair surgery because they were of an older population, and if these results would be the same in the 18-30 year old population.

Sarah Ilkhani-Pour said...

Those are two great questions, Kale, that were not addressed in this article. The authors did note that 4 patients were unable to return to their previous job due to their shoulder injury, hinting that their level of shoulder use may have decreased; however, the other 20 patients worked full time in jobs that included construction work and sports instructor. As you suggest with your comment, activity level has been associated with outcome. For example, exercise following a rotator cuff tear and repair worsened the tendon mechanical properties in a rat model (PMID: 20058271, I agree that this Fucentese et al. study does not target a young population that seeks to return to their previous activity level. For example, is it appropriate to recommend no surgery to a young baseball pitcher who suffers a small rotator cuff tear and wants to continue to play? I think this is where it is important to distinguish tears resulting from overuse and tears resulting from a traumatic event. And how does a small tear affect the rest of the joint (cartilage, remaining intact tendons, etc.)? Such questions require further targeted study and are currently being investigated using rat models in the Soslowsky lab at the University of Pennsylvania.

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