What are my treatment options after a rotator cuff tear?

The rotator cuff tear is one of the most common reasons why patients consult their GPs about pain and disability affecting the shoulder. In fact, the first description of a rotator cuff injury can be traced back to 1600 BC, when it appeared in the Surgical Papyrus, one of the oldest known medical texts.

Injuries to the rotator cuff become more common the older you get, accounting for 5% of all GP encounters. They may occur as part of the natural ageing process of the tendon and often show no symptoms at all. It’s estimated that more than 40% of patients over 60 will have a rotator cuff tear and will not even be aware of it, instead blaming their aches and pains on just getting older.

There may not be an isolated injury or event that causes the tear; the shoulder has a relatively poor blood supply and it is also an area that sees a lot of wear over time. As the tendons start to thin, even a small amount of strain can result in a tear.

Alternatively, a rotator cuff tear can be caused by a sudden, acute injury. Often, workers engaged in heavy lifting work can suffer from these types of injuries. Injuries can also occur during simple everyday activities such as cleaning, hanging curtains or gardening.

Athletic activities that involve excessive, repetitive, overhead motion, such as swimming, tennis and weightlifting can often be a cause. Tennis player Maria Sharapova had surgery to repair two rotator cuff tears in 2008. After a long recovery she finally returned to singles after a 10-month absence, but struggled for the next two years, before returning to form.

Will I need surgery to mend a rotator cuff tear?

At your consultation with the team at London Shoulder Specialists, non-surgical methods will usually be recommended first. The exact cause of the rotator cuff tear will often dictate the treatment options we advise.

Even though most tears can’t heal on their own, satisfactory function can often be achieved without surgery, so most patients with small degenerative rotator cuff tears can be treated with a combination of anti-inflammatory medication, steroid injections and physiotherapy. These options may all be of benefit in relieving pain and restoring strength to the involved shoulder. However, if the pain and lack of mobility associated with a rotator cuff tear fail to resolve, then your surgical options will be discussed with you.

Reasons where surgery might be indicated to repair a rotator cuff tear are:

  • persistent pain or weakness in your shoulder despite non-surgical treatment
  • if you are active and use your arm for overhead work or sports
  • symptoms have lasted for nine to twelve months
  • there is marked loss of function in the shoulder
  • a large tear is detected in the tendon (usually more than 3 cm)

Rotator cuff tear surgery typically entails re-attaching the tendon to the head of the upper arm bone called the humerus. A less invasive procedure, known as debridement, can be used to repair a partial tear by trimming or smoothing the tendon. A complete tear may require the two parts of the tendon to be stitched back together.

Three techniques are used for rotator cuff repair: traditional open repair, mini-open repair, and arthroscopic repair (keyhole); your consultant will advise you as to which approach is best suited to your individual circumstances.

What is the recovery like after rotator cuff tear surgery?

Rehabilitation plays a vital role in both the non-surgical and surgical treatment of a rotator cuff tear. Initially, the tendon will need to heal and you will be advised to keep your shoulder immobile for the first month or so and we recommend wearing a sling. Once the tendon has begun to heal then you will be required to undergo a programme of physical therapy aimed at returning your shoulder to its full pre-injury strength and motion.

Complete recovery can be expected approximately six months after surgery, as long as the patient rehabilitation programme has been followed. It is important to realise that there is always a chance of the rotator cuff re-tearing and the larger the initial tear, the higher the chance of that happening.

Could wearable technology reduce sports injury for top-flight cricketers?

More and more sports are utilising wearable tech, to keep their players at peak fitness and reduce possibility of sports injury. Rugby has been an early adopter, with every club in the Aviva Premiership using GPS units to measure speed and distance, and now cricket is set to follow.

Researchers at a leading Australian university have developed an algorithm, employing the technology behind guided missiles, to try and reduce injury and improve performance in cricket players. This so-called ‘torpedo technology’ has now been adopted by the Australian national team in advance of their test series against Sri Lanka in July.

Currently, the amount of balls that a bowler delivers is measured but not the intensity that is employed. Using missile-guiding microtechnology, including accelerometers, magnetometers and gyroscopes implanted into wearable technology, data will be gathered for a more in-depth workload analysis.

Sports injury rates in professional cricket game

Developments in professional cricket, with the introduction of T20 just over ten years ago, has meant more varied and complex demands on the player. As the cricket calendar has become more crowded, sports injury rates have risen; a study into injury rates of the Australian team found that the annual injury prevalence rates for fast bowlers exceeded 18%, with the shoulder being particularly vulnerable to injury.

Treating top-class cricketers

The team at the London Shoulder Specialists are experts in the treatment of professional cricket players. Mr Andrew Wallace, Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon, has treated elite athletes playing for the England and Wales national teams, as well as professional cricketers from abroad. Later this month, he will be giving a lecture on ‘Shoulder Injuries in Elite Cricketers: Prospects for Success’ at the Sports Symposium at the British Elbow and Shoulder Society. The focus of this particularly segment of the meeting, held in Dublin from 22nd to 24th June, will be on managing sports injury from the pitchside to return to play.

Mr Wallace will be focusing on SLAP tears, a shoulder injury that is common to cricketers or those that partake in overhead sports. Standing for ‘Superior Labrum Anterior and Posterior’, this is a tear to the top part of the shoulder joint, known as the labrum. It can be an incredibly painful injury and Mr Wallace employs arthroscopic surgery to visualise and successfully repair the labrum.