I see a lot of people with rotator cuff tears, but unfortunately, most of them have been poorly informed or do not understand what this means. Many believe that a torn rotator cuff means either surgery or a life of pain and disability. However, this isn’t the case and I want to discuss the facts of cuff tears that are not explained well to patients and give you one of my top tips that help explain cuff tears better.
The first thing to mention is that tears of the rotator cuff are common, really common. In fact, they should be seen as a normal part of ageing, just like skin wrinkles on the inside. We start to see rotator cuff tears appear in people without pain or any other symptoms from the age of 50 onwards (ref). In fact, one paper found that if you are over the age of 50 and have a rotator cuff tear seen on a scan it is twice as likely to NOT be giving you any symptoms, and this increases to four times by the age of 80 (ref).
However, this just isn’t explained well to patients and so we first need to start informing patients that once you get to a certain age these tears of your cuff may have been there a long time before you had any symptoms. Also, there is a strong possibility that they may have similar tears on their non-painful shoulder, but please be careful in how you tell patients this as the power of words can be very strong, just by telling patients they may have tears elsewhere could prime some to start to feel symptoms.
It’s not a rope!
I want to next discuss how we can explain rotator cuff tears a little better to patients. Being told you have torn your rotator cuff tendon can be scary as hell, especially when told its a large one, or a full thickness one, or one that it is hanging on by a thread, which is a horrendous explanation that should NEVER be used.
To help explain this cuff tendon tears better we first need to explain that not all tendons are the same. Many think all tendons are like the Achilles tendon, a rope-like structure attaching a broad muscle onto a narrow bony insertion. However, our tendons come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes from long thin ropey ones, to large flat board ones.
The rotator cuff group of tendons are unique in that they are ALL connected together and form a large broad flat continuous structure around the humeral head. Most clinicians are aware that the Supraspinatus, Infraspinatus, and Teres Minor tendons are connected, but many are not aware that the Subscapularis is also connected to Supraspinatus via the rotator cable across the long head of biceps, basically making the rotator cuff a continuous structure.
A lovely image of the cuff showing its continuous structure
So when someone has torn a rotator cuff tendon what they actually have is a hole in this large flat blanket like tendon, not a tear in a rope as most visualise. And I often use this blanket analogy to help patients visualise how the rotator cuff is arranged but also help them understand a tear of it better.
I often explain to patients that just because you have a hole in a blanket, it doesn’t mean the rest of blanket is useless. A blanket with a hole in it can still keep you warm at night, and a blanket with a hole in it will still move when you tug on one end of it.
This blanket analogy is not much different from the other analogy we use with lower limb tendons of treating the doughnut and not the hole. Its the same for the cuff, treat the blanket, not the hole. I find the hole in the blanket analogy helps explain and more importantly reduce the fear and anxiety of being told you have a torn rotator cuff and helps patients realise that they can work on the rest of the blanket around this hole.
The blanket analogy can also help patients understand how it is safe for them to exercise with a tear of their rotator cuff. Many think that exercise or strengthing will make a tendon tear worse. However, when you explain how exercising can help improve the function and resilience of the rest of the blanket around the hole and improve their shoulder movement and reduce their pain patients tend to understand. And despite some claims, there is little evidence that many cuff tears worsen or increase in size with exercise (ref).
I am also aware that the exercise may be doing other non-biomechanical things to help reduce pain and improve function around a cuff tear, things such as inhibitory learning, fear exposure and descending noxious inhibitory control (ref, ref).
Not just the blanket!
Finally, I think this blanket analogy is useful for us clinicians as it can help us visualise who may or may not do well with rehab depending on the size and location of this hole in the blanket. There is some research that states if the hole (cuff tear) is large (over 1.5cm) and/or involves multiple tendons (particularly Supraspinatus and Subscapularis) then perhaps surgery to repair it is warranted (ref).
However, it’s not as simple as only using the size and location of a rotator cuff tear to decide who does or doesn’t need surgery. Other research has found that there are many other factors to consider such as patient’s activity levels (physical or sedentary) general health factors (co-morbidities) and social status (education levels) (ref). All these factors along with the patient’s beliefs and expectations are important to consider in our clinical decision making about who is best suited for surgery or rehab.
To put it as simply as I can when it comes to rotator cuff tears it is vital to assess what shape the person is in and not just what shape their cuff is in to help guide us to the best treatment decisions. And this goes for all the other issues we see, we need to recognise that we should be assessing and managing the people, not just their structure.
So there you go a quick review of rotator cuff tears and some of the issues I come across regularly. I hope you start to use this analogy of the hole in the blanket to help patients understand cuff tears a little better and perhaps to act as an antidote to the generally nocebic information that patients often get. And finally when it comes to assessing, treating and advising patients what to do with cuff tears, remember it’s not just about the size of the hole in the blanket, but also what shape the bed, the bedroom, and the rest of the house is in.
As always, thanks for reading
If you would like to learn more useful tips like this from me then my 2-day shoulder course ‘Complex doesn’t have to be Complicated’ is travelling around the world and may be coming to a place near you.
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