Rotator cuff tears can occur from athletics such as baseball, weightlifting, competitive swimming or just over time with overuse and improper strength and flexibility. These shoulder injuries are extremely common, affecting at least 10% of people over the age of 60 in the United States – which equates to over 5.7 million individuals. Of the 5.7 million+ individuals who suffer from rotator cuff tears, fewer than 5% are treated surgically, and patients who undergo surgical repair experience a failure rate between 25 and 90%. What’s interesting though, is that patients with repair failures report satisfaction levels and outcome scores that are nearly indistinguishable from those whose repairs are intact. Because most of these surgical patients undergo postoperative physical therapy, it is logical to assume that physical therapy may be responsible for the improvements in outcome. A multicenter prospective cohort study conducted by the MOON Shoulder Group and published by Journal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery takes a closer look.
To conduct the study, 452 patients with atraumatic full-thickness shoulder rotator cuff tears provided data via questionnaire on demographics, symptom characteristics, comorbidities, willingness to undergo surgery, and patient-related outcome assessments. Physicians also recorded physical examination and imaging data. Patients then began a physical therapy program developed from a systematic review of the literature and returned for evaluation at six and 12 weeks.
At those visits, patients could choose one of three courses: 1. Cured (no formal follow-up scheduled), 2. Improved (continue therapy with scheduled reassessment in six weeks), or 3. No Better (surgery offered). Patients were also contacted by telephone at one and two years to determine whether they had undergone surgery since their last visit and a Wilcoxon-signed rank test with continuity correction was used to compare initial, six-week, and 12-week outcome scores.
The results? Patient-reported outcomes improved significantly at six and 12 weeks and patients elected to undergo surgery less than 25% of the time. The patients who did end up deciding to have surgery generally did so between six and 12 weeks, and few had surgery between three and 24 months.
This study suggests that nonoperative treatment using this physical therapy protocol is indeed effective for treating atraumatic full-thickness rotator cuff tears in approximately 75% of patients followed up for two years.