Partial rotator cuff tear – Do you really need a surgery?

Ross Hauser, MD, Danielle R. Steilen-Matias, MMS, PA-C

Partial rotator cuff tear – Do you really need surgery? Do you even want one?

Many people have very successful shoulder surgeries. In part what made their surgeries successful was they had the time and resources for a good post-surgical recovery. They also may have lost time by following a traditional pre-treatment protocol to clear the way for surgery approval. This would be conservative care with anti-inflammatory, physical therapy, and ultimately a cortisone injection. As you may be aware first-hand, if pain continues after these treatments, then the person would be declared a good candidate for surgery or that “surgery is now the only choice.” Does this mean we advocate for a “rush to surgery?” No, in our practice, we see many people who are exploring options for surgery for a partial rotator cuff tear. Let’s start this article first with some patient concerns we hear in our examination rooms from our new patients.

I cannot wait three months to train

Here is my MRI, as you can see I have a small tear in my supraspinatus tendon. The tear is small enough that I do not need surgery now but if I do not rest my arm, the tear will worsen. With rest and conservative care, my doctor told me 3 months for complete recovery. I am in training, I cannot wait three months to swim, get on the bike, or run.

I cannot wait a year for a complete healing

I am thinking about surgery. My doctor is confident that if I do not have the surgery my shoulder will heal fine, BUT, it could take up to a year. I am trying to stay active, I have been prescribed NSAIDs for the inflammation and I ice it a lot.  I am here because I am trying to speed up the healing process and want to resume weightlifting. I am getting physical therapy so I do not develop a “frozen shoulder.”

I had an MRI no one knows what it says or what to do next

I had an MRI, no one could tell what was really happening in my shoulder. The specialist told me that my MRI really wasn’t revealing anything and that when he goes in there (shoulder surgery), he will be able to see what is wrong and hopefully fix it. I have a physically demanding job, I work for myself, and I am not comfortable not knowing what I am “in for.”

I need to get ready for baseball

I need to pitch this season. My doctor wants me to have the surgery before my arm gets worse. He says there is a good chance I will be ready for the spring. Not 100% 

How realistic is it for me to expect to be able to avoid surgery?

I was just diagnosed by MRI and physical exam by two shoulder specialists that I have a partial tear in my supraspinatus tendon. How realistic is it for me to expect to avoid surgery for this? Is avoiding surgery a realistic outcome?

Article outline:

  • Exploring the many different treatment options for partial rotator cuff tear.
  • Do you even have a partial rotator cuff tear?
    • Thinking that an MRI that has a good probability of actually showing a partial rotator cuff tear surgery is flawed medical thinking.
    • The reliable diagnosis of partial-thickness tears of the rotator cuff is still elusive in clinical practice.
    • The comparative assessment of one hundred patients who underwent ultrasound and MRI for suspected supraspinatus tendinopathy.
    • The findings of MRI have calculated odds, you could have a partial rotator tear and be told you don’t, you may not have a partial tear and be told you do.
    • Ultrasound outperformed MRI in diagnosing partial-thickness subscapularis tear.
  • Does an arthroscopic repair of the rotator cuff cause more pain?
    • Younger patients had partial-thickness tears and occupational injuries and experienced more pain postoperatively.
    • In other words, something was not right after the arthroscopic surgery. In how many people?
  • The JOB and the SPORT were not making the shoulder worse.
    • “A partial-thickness rotator cuff tear does not have a significant influence on the athletic performance of professional baseball pitchers in the short term.”
    • Risk factors for tear progression in painful rotator cuff tears.
    • The rotator cuff surgical options.
  • In patients over 50, non-surgical management of partial rotator cuff tear is just as good as arthroscopic rotator cuff repair.
    • Cortisone injections into the shoulder before arthroscopic rotator cuff repair put patients at greater risk for post-surgical complications.
  • What about me? I pitch.
    • “Articular-sided partial-thickness rotator cuff tear alone did not cause shoulder pain and muscle weakness in university baseball players.”
    • Is the problem then one of overall general shoulder instability causing weakness, tearing, and damage?
    • You have a partial rotator cuff tear, you don’t want surgery. What’s next? A look at regenerative medicine for shoulder instability.
    • You had an MRI or ultrasound, there is a clear partial rotator cuff tear – Can imaging studies help predict who can benefit from non-surgical procedures?
    • The surgical consult for partial lesions of the supraspinatus tendon: which treatment?
  • Our treatment guidelines
    • Platelet Rich Plasma Prolotherapy as an alternative to partial torn rotator cuff and shoulder pain surgery
    • Stem cell and PRP injection treatment option
    • What is the outcome of a partially torn rotator cuff tendon treated one time with PRP and bone marrow aspirate concentrate?

Exploring the many different treatment options for partial rotator cuff tear – “there is insufficient evidence to advocate one repair technique over another.”

Many people have very successful surgeries for partial rotator cuff tears. In our office, we usually do not see these people. We see the people who did not have a good surgical outcome in the past or had a very successful outcome in the past but the patient did not want to go through the extensive rehabilitation.

A February 2022 paper in the journal Orthopedic Research and Reviews (1) discussed the challenges of treating a partial rotator cuff tear. Here is what they said: “Partial thickness tears of the rotator cuff are a common cause of shoulder pain and disability. Surgery is confined to those experiencing severe symptoms despite non-operative measures and for tears involving greater than 50% thickness. A number of surgical strategies have been described, but there is insufficient evidence to advocate one repair technique over another. . . ” Further below we are going to cite this paper again in discussing the treatments.

“I had an MRI no one knows what it says or what to do next.”

Many of the people we see with problems of partial rotator cuff tear are exploring the many different options for what to do for their shoulder problems. As you may know firsthand, the choice of many options may lead to confusion as to what treatments may offer you the best chance of shoulder healing success. How can you tell what is the best option for you? While there are no guarantees any treatment will work all the time, there is research guidance that may help your decision-making.

“I had an MRI no one knows what it says or what to do next.”

What are we seeing in this image?

The tears of the rotator cuff illustrated: Tear in the supraspinatus tendon, long head of the biceps tendon, and subscapularis tendon.

The tears of the rotator cuff illustrated: Tear in the supraspinatus tendon, longhead of the biceps tendon, subscapularis tendon.

Above we reported often hearing that the patient had an MRI and then no clear plan as to what to do next. If you are reading this article, you may be in the same situation and clearly, you are not alone.

A study led by the  University of Nebraska Medical Center (2) reported on problems of treatment: Some learning points are:

  • Partial-thickness rotator cuff tears remain difficult to diagnose with single imaging (An MRI or CT) modality. . . “
  • “In the primary care office, the initial evaluation of shoulder pain should include a thorough musculoskeletal evaluation in order to identify the source of the pain (e.g., shoulder, cervical spine, chest wall), as well as the development of an initial treatment plan.” (Please see our article Is neck instability causing your shoulder pain?)
  • “Information regarding the risks of oral medications for the management of (partial rotator cuff tears) and the associated pain keeps mounting.”

Does this research’s learning points sound familiar to you?

  • You had an imaging study, MRI, or CT scan
  • You may have or have not had a physical examination. Some patients report that their examination is a simple reading back of the MRI evaluation report.
  • You were given stronger prescriptions for painkillers until your doctors could figure out what to do.

An email we receive sounds something like this:

“I felt something tear in my shoulder. This is not the first time this has happened, I have had tears in both shoulders before. I am scheduled for an MRI but I can tell that I will be on conservative care because the injury will not be considered severe enough for surgery. So I will be in a limbo period either waiting for my shoulder to heal or get worse enough to need the surgery.  I had partial rotator cuff repair surgery before. It was very successful but the rehab was almost a year long and very demanding. By the time I wait for my shoulder to get worse and get the surgery, I could be in this for a year – to 18 months. I need to work.”

Do you even have a partial rotator cuff tear?

Many times a patient will tell us that they have surgery planned. But they do not want one. If you are in a similar situation, you like them, are looking at recovery times that a partial rotator cuff tear surgery may require as part or maybe your whole reason to avoid the surgery. But something does need to be done to prevent the partial from becoming a full tear and from you suffering from a worsening condition. But is it surgery? Next question, do you even have a partial rotator cuff tear? One thing for sure is you do have shoulder pain so something is wrong.

Thinking that an MRI that has a good probability of actually showing a partial rotator cuff tear surgery is flawed medical thinking

The concern about surgery for partial rotator cuff tears is that you may be operating on something that is not even there. This is not solely our opinion, many studies are confirming that an MRI may send you to unnecessary shoulder surgery.

Like the stories we hear from patients, one of which we relayed above, you may get an MRI that no one can make heads or tails out of and when that happens you will be recommended to a surgery “to see what is really going on.”

Many patients come into our office with an MRI of their shoulder. These patients have bounced from doctor to doctor, from specialist to specialist looking for a treatment option. The one thing that has remained constant with many of them is that the picture of their MRI is an accurate reflection of what is going on on their shoulder. This is not always the case. The MRI may be leading this patient down a path of treatment that is not accurate to their situation.

This is probably why you are still searching for treatment, you are chasing a partial rotator cuff tear as the sole problem. We are going to present evidence that you may be chasing the wrong target. What you should be chasing is shoulder instability treatment.

The reliable diagnosis of partial-thickness tears of the rotator cuff is still elusive in clinical practice.

We are going to help take you on a journey of MRI understanding that will reinforce our suggestions that the MRI may be leading you astray. We are going to use the help of some recent research and bring that research up to 2024.

This study comes from the Department of Orthopaedics and Orthopaedic Surgery at Saarland University Medical Center in Germany. It was published in the Archives of Orthopaedic and Trauma Surgery. (3) Here are the learning points:

  • The reliable diagnosis of partial-thickness tears of the rotator cuff is still elusive in clinical practice.
  • The purpose of the study was to determine the diagnostic accuracy of MRI and clinical tests for detecting partial-thickness tears of the rotator cuff as well as the combination of these tests.

There is a problem, partial rotator cuff tears are difficult to diagnose. Your MRI may be wrong. Your diagnosis may be in question.

  • Here is a statement from the research and then we will explain what it means regarding how accurate an MRI is for a partial rotator cuff tear.
    • Sensitivity for MR imaging to identify partial-thickness tears was 51.6%, specificity 77.2%, positive predictive value 41.3%, and negative predictive value 83.7%.

What you may notice in those numbers immediately is that there is no “100%.” 

  • So first thing, the MRI reading of an image is not accurate every single time.
    • The sensitivity for MR imaging to identify something that MAY be a partial-thickness tear was 51.6%.
      • What does this mean? This means that the MRI chances of accurately detecting the possibility of a  partial rotator cuff tear are there is about 52%. Basically the same accuracy odds as a coin flip.
    • Once this 52% is separated into probable and non-probable, then the probable partial rotator cuff tears are confirmed as partial tears with a specificity of 77.2%. What this means is that there is a 78% chance you do have a rotator cuff tear. You may then have been told the MRI shows a partial rotator cuff tear. Yet, there is, in reality, a 1 in 5 chance that is actually no tear. Are you being sent to surgery on this recommendation of a 78% probability? This answer is probably yes because the surgery, it will be suggested to you, will go in there and see if you really do have a tear and if you do, clean up your shoulder. See below for the research questioning this type of thinking.

The findings of MRI have calculated odds, you could have a partial rotator tear and be told you don’t, you may not have a partial tear and be told you do.

So, if you had 100 patients who were sent to an MRI with suspected partial rotator cuff tears. If the negative predictive value was 83.7% it means that the MRI’s ability to successfully predict that a partial rotator cuff tear is NOT THERE is almost 84% of the time. So there is a 16% chance that you do have a rotator cuff there and you will be told you do not. Equally, there is a 78% chance that you do have a tear, be told you have a tear, and there is a 1 in 5 chance that you do not. This is why there is no 100% in MRIs. This is why you may be chasing the wrong problem.

The researchers of this study took this one step further. They combined the MRI findings with a physical examination to see if the physical examination correlated with the MRI findings and if it helped to accurately diagnose the partial tear. The physical examinations were standard Jobe-Test and Sensitivity for the Impingement-sign which try to predict the possibility of a muscle tear in the rotator cuff.

For the combination of MR imaging, Jobe-test, and Impingement-sign, the results were as follows:

  • Sensitivity was 46.9%, which means that an MRI and physical examination’s combined chances of accurately detecting the possibility of a partial rotator cuff tear as being actually there are about 47%.
  • Once this 47% is separated into probable and non-probable, then the probable partial rotator cuff tears are confirmed as partial tears with a specificity of 85.4%. So following the physical examination and an MRI in the best, most absolute scenario, you can still only be told it is only likely you have a partial rotator cuff tear.  There is no 100% in MRIs.

The comparative assessment of one hundred patients who underwent ultrasound and MRI for suspected supraspinatus tendinopathy.

In our office, we use ultrasound as a primary means of assessing possible rotator cuff tears.

A September 2020 paper in The Ultrasound Journal (3) reported on the comparative assessment of one hundred patients who underwent ultrasound and MRI for suspected supraspinatus tendinopathy. The supraspinatus tendon was observed in these patients as being intact, suffering from a partial tear, or full-thickness tear. The researchers then looked for agreement between the ultrasound image and the MRI image in the patient’s diagnosis.

  • There was an agreement between the ultrasound image and the MRI image in 48/100 patients
  • The consistency of agreement varied with the type of pathology:
    • intact tendons by ultrasound had 55.8% agreement with MRI,
    • partial sided bursal tears 50%,
    • partial sided articular tears 25%,
    • and full-thickness focal tears 33.3%.
  • Full-thickness complete-width tears had a much better agreement with MRI at 90.9%.
  • Age was also significant, with increased disagreement between ultrasound and MRI in patients over 50 years old.

The outcome of this paper was a suggestion to primary care physicians that they use ultrasound as the initial test in younger patients and patients with suspected full supraspinatus tears, based on clinical exam, with MRI as an option for further evaluation to quantify supraspinatus muscle atrophy.

A February 2022 paper (4) from Brazilian researchers found that “the measurement or classification of the (rotator cuff) tear size can be accurately performed. Where there is disagreement (between radiologist and surgeon), it is unclear whether the tear size is either underestimated on the (MRI) scan or overestimated during (arthroscopic) surgery.” The researchers noted that a supraspinatus tear is usually detected by scan, infraspinatus and subscapularis tears correct diagnosis in MRI is less accurate.

Ultrasound outperformed MRI in diagnosing partial-thickness subscapularis tear

A February 2022 study in the journal Arthroscopy (5) found ultrasound outperformed MRI in diagnosing partial-thickness subscapularis tear. In this study, a comparison between ultrasound diagnosis and MRI diagnosis was made by confirming these imaging readings against what doctors found during an arthroscopic procedure. The significance of this study is that of 437 patients who were scheduled to undergo arthroscopic rotator cuff repair, preoperative ultrasound and MRI of the shoulder was performed, and ultrasound correctly diagnosed 122 of 157 patients with subscapularis (SSC) tears, with an overall sensitivity of 77.7% which was significantly greater than that of MRI.

  • Conclusions: Ultrasound is a reliable and accurate diagnostic method for subscapularis (SSC) tears, especially in easily missed partial-thickness tears.

A word about artificial intelligence and shoulder MRIs

Artificial intelligence is a computer’s ability to present accurate prediction models that can help in the diagnosis of a patient. We present this small section, which will get larger as the years go by, to help people who may have heard the term used in their radiological assessments and may hear the term more often as they continue their medical journeys toward shoulder pain treatment.  We also present this section because occasionally we get asked about “AI.”

As of this writing, a June 2023 paper in the journal Arthroscopy (6) looked to see if artificial intelligence could make MRI and ultrasound reading “more accurate.” What they found was that “AI models based on ultrasound images demonstrated a diagnostic performance similar to that of radiologists. Another comparative study demonstrated that AI models using MRI images exhibited greater accuracy and specificity compared to orthopedic surgeons in the diagnosis of rotator cuff pathology, albeit not in sensitivity (the correct assessment that a tear is present.)

Let’s get back to work.

Once you get passed the MRI, doctors offer guidelines for getting workers back to work.

A July 2022 paper in The Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy (7) offered and suggested a series of clinical guidelines to doctors to help their patients get back to work.  “The initial assessment should include the patient’s history, a subjective assessment, and a physical examination. Diagnostic imaging is only necessary in select circumstances. Acetaminophen, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and injection therapies may be useful to reduce pain in the short term. Clinicians should prescribe an active and task-oriented rehabilitation program (exercises and education) to reduce pain and disability in adults with rotator cuff disorders. Subacromial decompression is not recommended to treat rotator cuff tendinopathy. Surgery is appropriate for selected patients with a full-thickness rotator cuff tear.”

You had an MRI or ultrasound, there is a clear partial rotator cuff tear – Can imaging studies help predict who can benefit from non-surgical procedures?

You had an MRI or ultrasound, there is a clear partial rotator cuff tear. The imagining evidence in your case is clear. Does this mean you should get surgery? Researchers at the University of Calgary and McMaster University in Canada published their findings in the September 2018 issue of the Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine (8). Here is what the findings suggested.

  • Seventy-six patients (48 males, 28 females) with an average age of 52 were included in the study.
  • Patients were evaluated using a standardized format including clinical, imaging, and shoulder-specific quality-of-life outcomes.
  • Patients were assessed and treated either successfully nonoperatively or consented to undergo surgical intervention of their partial rotator cuff tear.
  • Patients treated nonoperatively underwent follow-up by an MRI arthrogram.

Results:

The non-surgery treatment plan included:

“Treatment plans were personalized to each patient and included any combination of rest or activity modification, pain medications, anti-inflammatories, subacromial steroid injections, and a physiotherapist instituted and supervised home-based rehabilitation program. The program included stretching exercises, and strengthening exercises including posterior capsular stretching and rotator cuff and parascapular muscle strengthening.”

  • Thirty-seven patients (49%) underwent nonoperative treatment.
  • In patients with atraumatic partial rotator cuff tear involving less than 50% of the tendon thickness of the nondominant arm, nonoperative treatment was more likely to be successful. These are patients suffering from more age-related degeneration than a recent injury.
  • In patients with traumatic lesions involving more than 50% of the tendon thickness of the dominant arm, nonoperative treatment was more likely to fail. Although the reasons for this are unclear

Let’s point out again that the treatment these people had were:

  • Rest or activity modification,
  • pain medications,
  • anti-inflammatories,
  • subacromial steroid injections,
  • and a physiotherapist instituted and supervised a home-based rehabilitation program.

Many patients we see have come in following an extensive course of physical therapy. At these sessions, the therapists may concentrate on helping the tear by strengthening the other areas of the rotator cuff. Strengthening the other areas of the rotator cuff can be very beneficial, but, if you complete the prescribed course of physical therapy and you still have shoulder pain, this is typically not considered a successful treatment and an indication that something else is going on in the shoulder beyond rotator cuff.

Risk factors for tear progression in painful rotator cuff tears

Doctors at Tohoku University School of Medicine writing in the American Journal of Sports Medicine (9) were looking for the risk factors for tear progression in painful rotator cuff tears when a patient decides not to have the surgery. These researchers also looked at the type of patient, high active, and low active, in determining an accurate assessment.

  • The theory is that tears in younger patients, high-activity patients, or heavy laborers would progress in size more than those in older patients, low-activity patients, or light laborers. This theory was shown to be INCORRECT.
    • 225 consecutive patients with symptomatic rotator cuff tears visited the researcher’s institute between 2009 and 2015.
    • Of these, 174 shoulders of 171 patients (average age 67 years old) who underwent at least 2 magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) examinations were prospectively enrolled in the study.
    • At an average of 19 months follow-up, tear progression was defined as positive when the tear size increased by more than 7/100ths of an inch.
    • Of the 174 shoulders, 82 shoulders (47%) showed tear progression.
    • On average, the tear progression is 3.8 mm/year in length (about a 1/6th inch) and 2.0 mm/y (a little more than a 1/12th inch in width.

The size of full-thickness tears significantly increased compared with that of articular-sided (closest to shoulder as cared to bursa side) partial-thickness tears.

  • YET, sports participation and job type did not show any correlation with tear progression. The JOB and the SPORT were not making the shoulder worse.

Higher activity levels may not be associated with greater progression of rotator cuff disease

A May 2023 paper in the Journal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery (10) also wanted to answer the question as to whether conservatively treated rotator cuff tears (get larger) and rotator cuff tendinopathy may continue to progress. Of the factors the researchers were looking for was the answer, does the rate of progression differ between the right and left side in patients with diagnosed tears in both shoulders? To assess the answer the researchers looked at patients with bilateral tears, confirmed via magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), treated conservatively for a minimum of one year.

Summary points:

  • The researchers examined 480 MRIs from 120 Veteran’s Affairs patients with bilateral, conservatively treated rotator cuff disease.
  • Overall, 42% (100/240) of rotator cuff disease had progressed.
  • No significant difference was found between the progression of right vs. left rotator cuff pathology, with right shoulder pathology progressing at a rate of 39% (47/120), while left shoulder disease progressed at a rate of 44% (53/120).
  • The likelihood of disease progression was associated with less initial tendon retraction and older age. Importantly these findings suggest that “higher activity level may not associate with greater progression of rotator cuff disease.”

“A partial-thickness rotator cuff tear does not have a significant influence on the athletic performance of professional baseball pitchers in the short term”

Let’s stay with the higher activity discussion. A November 2019 study published in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine (11) asks the question, can a pitcher still pitch with a partial rotator cuff tear WITHOUT SURGERY?

Here is a summary of this study:

  • Of 191 professional pitchers who were examined between January 2009 and October 2018, 52 individuals had partial-thickness tears with at least 2 years of follow-up magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans.
  • All initial MRI examinations were performed at the completion of the pitcher’s baseball season or during the off-season for regular medical check-up purposes. Any abnormal finding on MRI, which suggests damage to the rotator cuff tendon, was assumed to have occurred during the previous season.

This next part is baseball jargon for effectiveness.

  • The study evaluated the changes in 5 statistical performance indicators: earned run average (ERA), fielding independent pitching (FIP), walks plus hits divided by innings pitched (WHIP), winning percentage (WPCT), and innings pitched (IP).

RESULTS:

  • The partial-thickness tears progressed in 39 of 52 (75%) patients.
  • Of these 39 patients, 34 (87%) were grade 1 in severity and 5 (12.8%) were grade 2 or higher.
  • A partial-thickness rotator cuff tear does not have a significant influence on the athletic performance of professional baseball pitchers in the short term based on conventional performance indicators. The study findings suggest that WHIP and IP decline significantly 2 years after damage is noticed.

Nonsurgical management should be exhausted before considering surgical intervention.

A September 2021 paper in the Journal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery Reviews, Reports, and Techniques (12) gives reasons why a pitcher or an overhand throwing athlete (a patient with higher activity levels) may not want to pursue surgery. The authors write: “Surgical repair of the stabilizers of the humeral head—specifically the labrum and rotator cuff—often causes inflammation, scarring, and over-tensioning (strain) of the glenohumeral (shoulder) joint which lead to poor postoperative performance. Thus, nonsurgical management should be exhausted in this population before considering surgical intervention.”

A November 2023 paper in the journal Sports Medicine and Arthroscopy Review (41) looked to assess whether a conservative approach to partial rotator cuff tear ” yields positive results in terms of clinical outcomes and functional recovery.” The conservative care options explored were: physiotherapy, platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections, collagen injections, hyaluronic acid (HA) injections, or corticosteroids injections coupled with polydeoxyribonucleotide (PDRN – a DNA-derived drug typically processed from salmon gonads).

The researchers reviewed the data from 11 studies.

  • Six studies explored the outcomes of patients with partial rotator cuff tears treated with PRP injections. In these data points, patients were said to have seen significant improvements in self-reported pain scores.
  • Two studies examined collagen injections and reported variations in pain and disability self-reported outcomes.
  • Sodium hyaluronate (a lower-weight derivative of hyaluronic acid)  and hyaluronic acid injections were studied in two other articles, showing notable improvements.
  • Corticosteroid and PDRN injections also displayed favorable outcomes.
  • In addition, physical therapy protocols demonstrated improvements in pain and strength scores, particularly with eccentric rehabilitation.

The researchers concluded: “Favorable results are observed in terms of decreased tear width and improved strength recovery (with these treatments), at least during a short-term follow-up.”

A December 2023 paper from Canadian researchers at Mount Royal University and the University of Alberta did not support surgery as being the best treatment option for partial rotator cuff tears. Writing in the Journal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery (42) the researchers noted that conservative, non-surgical treatments such as “platelet-rich plasma, corticosteroid, prolotherapy, sodium hyaluronate (hyaluronic acid), anesthetic, and atelocollagen), exercise therapy, and physical agents showed equal patient outcomes as such surgical procedures as: “debridement, shaving of the tendon and footprint, transtendon repair, and traditional suture anchor repair techniques with and without tear completion.” They continue: “Surgery, however, is the most invasive and costly approach, with the highest risk of complications such as infection.”

Partial lesions of the supraspinatus tendon: which treatment?

Partial lesions of the supraspinatus tendon: which treatment? is the title of an April 2021 paper (13) on recommended treatment options for a partial tear of the supraspinatus tendon. Here is what the paper authors and orthopedists recommended:

“At present, there is no consensus on the management of these (supraspinatus tendon) lesions, and surgery remains a second-line treatment for patients who do not respond to conservative treatment. If done properly, conservative treatment is effective for most patients.

For lesions less than 50% of the tendon thickness (grades 1 and 2) we recommend physiotherapy and possibly (cortisone) infiltration of the subacromial bursa. For all lesions above 50% (grade 3), if conservative treatment fails, we propose arthroscopic suture of the lesion.”

Some patients come in after a cortisone injection. We do not recommend cortisone injections. The foremost reason is tissue degeneration and breakdown. Surgeons have documented the difficulties of performing rotator cuff surgery on patients who had previous cortisone injections because of the frailty of the tendons. Please see our article Rotator Cuff Tendinopathy Comparing Prolotherapy, PRP, and Cortisone for a greater discussion on this topic.

What are we seeing in this image?

In this illustration, we see the rotator cuff muscles that support and move the shoulder. These include the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, and the teres minor muscle.

In this illustration we see the orator cuff muscles that support and move the shoulder. These include the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, and the teres minor muscle.

“Articular-sided partial-thickness rotator cuff tear alone did not cause shoulder pain and muscle weakness in university baseball players.”

Here is an October 2019 study from the Department of Orthopedic Surgery, Osaka Medical College published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine. (14)

Here are the learning points:

  • Partial-thickness rotator cuff tears are common shoulder injuries in baseball players. For some tears, the symptoms can be relieved through physical therapy or debridement without rotator cuff repair.
  • This study assesses whether partial-thickness rotator cuff tear by itself causes shoulder pain and muscle weakness in baseball players.

The researchers studied 87 university baseball players (about 19 years old, having been playing for about 11 years)

  • Rotator cuff tendons were examined ultrasonographically and allocated to 4 groups:
    • (1) no tear,
    • (2) supraspinatus tendon tear,
    • (3) infraspinatus tendon tear, and
    • (4) both the supraspinatus and infraspinatus tendon tears.

Current shoulder pain and shoulder muscle strength (dominant/nondominant) in abduction, external rotation, and internal rotation were compared with standard testing. All players could play baseball with or without shoulder pain in this study.

  • Of the 87 players, 41 (47%) had articular (not all the way through)-sided partial-thickness rotator cuff tears diagnosed on ultrasonography;
  • the remaining 46 athletes were tear-free.
  • Of the 41 affected patients
    • 19 had tears in the supraspinatus,
    • 13 in the infraspinatus,
    • and 9 in both the supraspinatus and infraspinatus tendons.
    • Tear depth (AVERAGE) was 4.6 mm in the supraspinatus and 6.2 mm in the infraspinatus.
    • Neither the rate of shoulder pain nor muscle strength differed significantly among the 4 groups. (Tear or no tear).

Articular-sided partial-thickness rotator cuff tear by itself did not cause shoulder pain and muscle weakness in university baseball players. Most so-called articular-sided partial-thickness rotator cuff tears may not be pathologic tendon tears.

You have a partial rotator cuff tear, you don’t want surgery. What’s next?

When someone comes into our clinic with a diagnosis of a partial rotator cuff tear they are here because they are trying to avoid surgery. So are we. To help you avoid surgery we will do a physical examination and take a medical history to assess what type of treatments we can offer that best suit the demands you place on your shoulder, whether through sports or physically demanding jobs. We then go about repairing your shoulder and the problems that lead to your degenerative rotator cuff tear or the damage sustained in an impact injury forceful enough to cause the rotator cuff tear.

A quick note on shoulder instability

Shoulder instability increases the force on rotator cuff tendons. The rotator cuff is designed to move the shoulder joint, not stabilize it. This causes the tendons to weaken and degenerate, increasing susceptibility to tearing. Rotator cuff tears are indicative of joint instability. Traditional treatment for shoulder instability is rotator cuff strengthening exercises, specifically of the supraspinatus muscle, the primary muscle responsible for the external rotation of the shoulder. To fix shoulder joint instability, the shoulder ligaments and shoulder capsular structures must be strengthened. This will be explained below

The anti-inflammatory treatment of rotator cuff tears

Anti-inflammatory treatment is the use of medications and possible injections to treat inflammation and swelling in the shoulder joint. Research has shown that preoperative use of NSAIDs or Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs leads to higher risk factors for rotator cuff surgery failures. (15)

Cortisone is the last best anti-inflammatory that your shoulder specialist may have. While some people will get a short-term benefit from cortisone, doctors are concerned with the long-term and how this would impact a future rotator cuff repair surgery.

Researchers from Tufts Medical Center, Rush University Medical Center, and the Hospital For Special Surgery published a December 2019 study in the journal Arthroscopy (16) in which they suggested that cortisone injections into the shoulder prior to arthroscopic rotator cuff repair, puts patients at greater risk for post-surgical complications and eventually, the need for a secondary or revision shoulder surgery.

From this research:

Several recent clinical trials have demonstrated that corticosteroid injections are correlated with increased risk of revision surgery after arthroscopic rotator cuff repair.”

“Caution should be taken when deciding to inject a patient (with cortisone), and this treatment should be withheld if an arthroscopic rotator cuff repair is to be performed within the following six months.”

Earlier in 2019, researchers from the Mayo Clinic, Hospital for Special Surgery, and the University of Virginia, examined the association between the use of subacromial corticosteroid injections within a year before rotator cuff repair and the subsequent need for revision rotator cuff surgery. Also published in the medical journal Arthroscopy (17), this research team published these findings:

“A single shoulder injection within a year prior to arthroscopic RCR was not associated with an increased risk of revision surgery; however, the administration of 2 or more injections was associated with a substantially increased risk of subsequent revision rotator cuff surgery”

Kinesio taping

An August 2021 paper in The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (18) could not find evidence that kinesio taping would help with problems of the rotator cuff. The study authors write: “Kinesio taping for rotator cuff disease has uncertain effects in terms of self-reported pain, function, pain on motion and active range of motion when compared to sham taping or other conservative treatments as the certainty of evidence was very low. . . . Based upon the data in (our study), the evidence for the efficacy of kinesio taping seems to demonstrate little or no benefit.

Not all doctors held this review and a June 2022 review (19) suggested that the data may not accurately portray the benefits of kinesio taping and that physicians and clinicians should make more informed choices for the appropriate application and use of kinesio taping.

Physical therapy for partial rotator cuff tears


In patients over 50, non-surgical management of partial rotator cuff tear is just as good as arthroscopic rotator cuff repair

Many people over 50 are very active in sports and maintain physically demanding jobs. Some are living a more relaxed lifestyle. One of the reasons for the more relaxed lifestyle may be their shoulder injury preventing them from doing the activities they love. They too are afraid of making the shoulder worse and them facing the need for surgery.

Non-surgery treatment options just as good as surgery

In a recent study in the Annals of Rehabilitation Medicine, (20doctors say that in patients over 50, non-surgical management of partial rotator cuff tear is just as good as arthroscopic rotator cuff repair.

Patients with either a high-grade partial-thickness or small-to-medium-sized full-thickness tear were included in this study. The primary outcome measurements to see which patients did well or did not do well were a pain assessment score and range of motion score one year after treatment.

Another thing the researchers looked for was how many patients had tear progression or re-tear and pain after the treatments.

A total of 357 patients were enrolled, including 183 patients who received conservative treatment and 174 patients who received an arthroscopic repair.

  • Both groups showed an improved range of motion and lessened pain.

The conservative care group did just as well as the surgical repair group.

  • Re-tear of the rotator cuff was observed in 9.6% of patients who had an arthroscopic repair and tear progression was found in 6.7% of those who underwent conservative treatment.

Here is an important point:

The conservative therapies were oral pain medication, steroid injections, and shoulder exercises. Only exercise therapy could be considered a healing treatment.

Treatments when tears are very small and surgery is not justified

An October 2023 paper in the journal Medical Acupuncture (21) suggests acupuncture needles may play an important role in healing rotator cuff damage in patients with small, partial rotator cuff tears. Dr. Chaney G. Stewman. MD writes: “Nonoperative treatments when physical therapy and oral medications have not resolved the issue often consist of different strategies to improve blood flow and promote growth factors, thereby creating regeneration and healing of injured tissue in the rotator cuff tendons. Acupuncture could serve in a similar role when needles are strategically targeted into injured tissue utilizing ultrasound visualization.”

Dr. Stewman presented a case of a 58-year-old man who had suffered for more than a year with symptoms of rotator cuff tendinopathy involving the supraspinatus and infraspinatus tendons. Physical therapy and a corticosteroid injection to the subacromial bursa did not alleviate his pain. He was not a surgical candidate for rotator cuff repair because of the small size of the partial tear. He then opted for ultrasound-guided electroacupuncture.

Dr. Stewman reported: “Treatment was successful and completed within 4 weekly sessions. He reported 85% improvement in symptoms.”

The surgical options

At our center, we offer non-surgical treatment options that include regenerative medicine injections which are described below. Not every person will benefit from these injections and not every person will benefit from surgery. When discussing surgical success and failures, since we do not offer surgery, we rely on the most current published medical research for an opinion on the surgery option.

An April 2021 paper in the Journal of Clinical Orthopaedics and Trauma (22) comes from orthopedist surgeons in the United Kingdom. Here are their observations on the surgical recommendation: “There are still many unanswered questions in rotator cuff surgery, but this may be because the success of certain treatment options is highly dependent on patient selection. Despite growing numbers of articles being published on rotator cuff repairs, the level of evidence remains low. Larger, collaborative projects may help in answering the common dilemmas that still face shoulder surgeons.”

To be fair, patient selection is a very important process in all medical treatments. As mentioned above, surgery will not work for everyone, and non-surgical treatments will not work for everyone. Exploring your options by talking to both surgeons and non-surgical providers may help you with your decision-making process.

Does an arthroscopic repair of the rotator cuff cause more pain?


Younger patients had partial-thickness tears and had occupational injuries experienced more pain postoperatively

Back to you. You are exploring alternatives to rotator cuff surgery because you may need to get back to work or a sport and the post-surgical recovery time is more than you want to manage at this point. In the above scenario of MRI probabilities in assessing whether you actually have a partial rotator cuff tear, doctors may recommend arthroscopic or exploratory surgery to see what is “really going on.” While they are in your shoulder, they will clean up what they find.

Doctors at the University of New South Wales are suggesting something totally contradictory to our understanding of rotator cuff arthroscopy. Writing in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, March 2017, (23they suggest that:

  • Rotator cuff repair often results in significant pain postoperatively, the cause of which is undetermined.
  • 1624 patients who underwent arthroscopic rotator cuff repair were included in this study.
  • Rotator cuff tears were subdivided into groups based on the tear size and re-tear rate found for each group.
  • A smaller tear area was associated with:
    • more frequent and severe pain with overhead activities, at rest, and during sleep as well as a poorer perceived overall shoulder condition at 6 weeks, 3 months, and 6 months after repair
  • Younger patients had partial-thickness tears and had occupational injuries experienced more pain postoperatively
  • Larger tears did not have more pain 1 week after surgery. The re-tear rate was 7%.
  • There were fewer re-tears with smaller tears, but they were more painful than large tears postoperatively from 6 weeks to 6 months after surgery. Patients with smaller tears experienced more pain after rotator cuff repair compared with patients with larger tears. These findings are contrary to previous ideas about tear size and postoperative pain.

In other words, something was not right after the surgery. In how many people?

Now let’s bring that 2017 research current.

A June 2018 study in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine (24) found that “After rotator cuff repair, some patients have ongoing problems significant enough to warrant presentation to a clinic for reassessment.” In other words, something was not right after the surgery. In how many people? Measured by how many patients had to make an unscheduled postoperative visit to the surgeon’s office? About 1 in 6. Some people knew right away that things were not right, about 1/3rd of patients with problems after surgery were in the surgeon’s office within 2 weeks after the surgery for an unscheduled follow-up.

However, a September 2022 paper (25) from doctors in Switzerland looked for better ways to predict who would have “successful” shoulder surgery and who would have prolonged pain and medication use after arthroscopic shoulder surgery. To do this, the study authors examined 24 previously published studies and found “younger age and smaller tear size as probably prognostic for a greater improvement in objective outcomes. They also found that people who had shorter symptom duration (new onset), did not have a worker compensation claim, did not have a lot of functional activity before surgery, and a high preoperative pain level were classified as probably prognostic for greater improvement in patient-reported outcome measures.

Further, a January 2023 paper (26) found that 75.4% (522 of 692 patients) were able to return to play within an average 6 months after surgery for a partial tear.

  • Of 692 patients, 433 (62.5%) were able to return to sport at the pre-injury level.
  • Fourteen out of 138 patients (10.1%) underwent a further reoperation.
  • The overall rate of complications was 7.1% (20 of 280).

Conclusion: Arthroscopic reconstruction of the rotator cuff is effective in improving the function of the shoulder in overhead athletes, with a rate of return to sport in 75.4% of patients within an average of 6.4 months.

Arthroscopic reconstruction of the rotator cuff is effective in improving the function of the shoulder in overhead athletes, with a rate of return to sport in 75.4% of patients within an average of 6.4 months.

Does surgical repair of rotator cuff tears in patients aged 75 years and older make sense?

A January 2023 paper in the journal Frontiers in Public Health (x) asked if surgical repair of rotator cuff tears in patients aged 75 years and older made sense.

The researchers start out with a fact, “asymptomatic full-thickness tear rate is 40% in the over 75-year-old population.” In other words, people over 75 are walking around with a full-thickness tear and they are not displaying any symptoms. In this review study, the researchers examined previously published data on 252 shoulders in patients over the age of 75 who were surgically repaired.

They found that patients in this age group demonstrated a significant improvement in the clinical and functional scores after rotator cuff repair, with a high satisfaction rate. They also concluded that “rotator cuff repair in patients aged over 75 years could achieve high clinical success rates with good outcomes and pain relief. Although patients in this age group are at a high risk of retear, rotator cuff repair may offer a good option with significant functional and clinical improvement.”

As we have demonstrated in all our articles, many people have good success rates with surgeries. These are typically the people we do not see.

Rotator Cuff Tears- Prolotherapist FAQs: When are Prolotherapy & PRP used? Can surgery be avoided?

Danielle Matias, PA-C gives a general overview of when Comprehensive Prolotherapy with PRP is used for rotator cuff or other shoulder tears and shoulder instability cases and compares this to when a patient is typically referred for surgery.

Our treatment guidelines

We use Prolotherapy injections as the main treatment. Prolotherapy is the injection of simple dextrose into the shoulder which stimulates repair by calling the repair cells of the body to the site of the tear. This treatment is explained further below with a video demonstration of the treatment. Sometimes the patient’s tear is more significant and needs more aggressive treatment. In this case, we want to add healing cells at the site of the injury.

We may utilize Platelet Rich Plasma therapy. Here we take the healing cells found in your blood platelets and concentrate them down into an injectable solution. This treatment is also described and demonstrated below. Rarely do we use stem cell therapy for these types of injuries and the PRP and Prolotherapy injections used in combination can offer the patient equal results without extra costs.

As also demonstrated in the treatment videos below, we do not solely focus on the torn area of the shoulder during treatment, we want to treat the entire shoulder within the treatment. This provides support in stabilizing the shoulder joint capsule.

During treatment, we may suggest to the patient movement or activity restrictions to help facilitate healing. Many patients are recommended 5 – 7 days of rest before continuing with their treatments.


In this video, a general demonstration of Prolotherapy and PRP treatment is given for a patient with MRI findings showing multiple labral tears and rotator cuff problems

Danielle R. Steilen-Matias, MMS, PA-C narrates the video and is the practitioner giving the treatment:

Prolotherapy is an injection technique utilizing simple sugar or dextrose.

  • PRP or Platelet Rich Plasma treatment takes your blood, like going for a blood test, and re-introduces the concentrated blood platelets and growth and healing factors from your blood into the shoulder. The treatment is explained further below.
  • In the shoulder treatment, I treat all aspects of the shoulder including the ligament and tendon injections to cover the whole shoulder.
  • The patient in this video is not sedated in any way. Most patients tolerate the injections very well. The treatment goes quickly. However, we do make all patients comfortable including sedation if needed.
  • This patient in particular comes to us with a history of repeated shoulder dislocations. His MRI findings showed multiple labral tears and rotator cuff problems.
  • The patient complained of shoulder instability typical of the ligament and tendon damage multiple dislocations can do.
  • Treatment continues to the front of the shoulder. The rotator cuff insertions, the anterior joint capsule, and the glenohumeral ligaments are treated.
  • PRP is introduced into the treatment and injected into the front of the shoulder. PRP is a form of Prolotherapy where we take concentrated cells and platelets from the patient’s blood and inject that back into the joint. It is a more aggressive form of Prolotherapy and we typically use it for someone who has had a labral tear, shoulder osteoarthritis, and cartilage lesions.
  • PRP is injected into the shoulder joint and the remaining solution is injected into the surrounding ligaments in this case it was in his anterior shoulder attachments to address the chronic dislocations.

Platelet Rich Plasma Prolotherapy as an alternative to partial torn rotator cuff and shoulder pain surgery

Prolotherapy can be a viable option for rotator cuff injuries because it involves the regeneration of soft tissue. Prolotherapy is a simple injection therapy with a short recovery time and allows the use of the shoulder during recovery. Prolotherapy is a first-line alternative to costly and invasive surgery, which addresses the root cause of the problem (often missed by surgery), and leads to a better recovery.

  • Prolotherapy solutions are injected into your painful areas to repair damaged tissue.
  • The injections create a localized inflammation triggering the immune system to create the building blocks of ligaments, tendons, cartilage, and bone.
  • Prolotherapy, through a series of injections, REBUILDS the rotator cuff soft tissue.

A February 2024 paper in the journal Alternative therapies in health and medicine (43) reviewed data from six previously published studies examining the role of prolotherapy is helping patients with pain and disability from rotator cuff tears.  The researchers found individuals with rotator cuff lesions who received hypertonic dextrose (Prolotherapy) had significant improvement in “visual analog scale (VAS) scores, shoulder pain and disability index (SPADI) scores, and other metrics that were used to evaluate the effects of hypertonic dextrose proliferation therapy on individuals with rotator cuff lesions.”

In a published study conducted with our own patients – we showed the benefits of Prolotherapy as an alternative to shoulder surgery. Thirty-four chronic pain patients who were told by their medical doctor/surgeon that surgery was needed were treated with dextrose Prolotherapy in lieu of surgery. Twenty of these patients were faced with joint replacements and nine with arthroscopic procedures. (27 This research appeared in the Journal of Prolotherapy.

  • In this study, Prolotherapy caused a significant improvement in pain and stiffness.
  • Ninety-one percent of patients felt Prolotherapy gave them 50% or greater pain relief, and 71% felt the pain relief was greater than 75%.
  • The patients’ quality of life was improved as depression, anxiety, and medication usage decreased while their range of motion, sleep, and exercise ability improved.
  • Prolotherapy was able to eliminate the need for surgery realistically in 31 out of 34 patients.
  • The recent research from Korean doctors written in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (28) suggests Prolotherapy showed improvement in pain, disability, isometric strength, and range of motion in patients with refractory chronic rotator cuff disease.

In May 2017, Turkish doctors wrote in the journal Orthopaedics & Traumatology, Surgery & Research(29) that Dextrose Prolotherapy will reduce pain and improve shoulder function and patient satisfaction.

  • In this study, 120 patients with chronic rotator cuff lesions and symptoms that persisted for longer than 6 months were divided into two groups: one treated with exercise as the control group, and the other treated with Prolotherapy injection. In the Prolotherapy group, ultrasound-guided Prolotherapy injections were applied.
  • In the exercise group, patients received a physiotherapy protocol of three sessions weekly for 12 weeks.
  • Both groups were instructed to carry out a home exercise program.

In the Prolotherapy group, 53 patients (92.9%) reported excellent or good outcomes; in the control group, 25 patients (56.8%) reported excellent or good outcomes. Prolotherapy is an easily applicable and satisfying auxiliary method in the treatment of chronic rotator cuff lesions.

In the January 2016 edition of the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (30) doctors including our friend and colleague K. Dean Reeves of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, University of Kansas, assessed the effects of dextrose Prolotherapy on pain levels and degenerative changes in painful rotator cuff tendinopathy.

The participants in this study received three monthly injections into the entheses (the tissue that attaches the tendon to the bone).

  • Group one received dextrose Prolotherapy
  • Group two injections into the entheses with saline (control/placebo group)
  • Group three, injections above the entheses with saline (control/placebo group)
  • All participants received concurrent programmed physical therapy.

The primary conclusion of this research was: “In participants with painful rotator cuff tendinopathy who receive physical therapy, injection of hypertonic dextrose on painful entheses resulted in superior long-term pain improvement and patient satisfaction compared with blinded saline injection over painful entheses, with intermediate results for entheses injection with saline.  Dextrose Prolotherapy may improve on the standard care of painful rotator cuff tendinopathy for certain patients.”

What do the PRP injections do?

As you see from the video above, we do not offer PRP injections without Prolotherapy injections. PRP is different than Prolotherapy as it utilizes the patient’s blood platelets as a healing injectable in the shoulder.

  • Your blood platelets contain growth and healing factors. When concentrated through simple centrifuging, your blood plasma becomes “rich” in healing factors, thus the name Platelet RICH plasma. Platelets play a central role in blood clotting and wound/injury healing.

Above we discussed treating the whole shoulder as opposed to focusing on the partial rotator cuff tear. PRP and Prolotherapy injections achieve this goal. The PRP helps to focus on the tendon and muscle damage, Prolotherapy focuses on strengthening the ligaments and improving shoulder stability. If you repair the rotator cuff, without addressing the shoulder ligaments, you are limiting your chance for long-term healing.

The research on PRP

In a heavily cited study, doctors in Israel writing in the medical journal Sports Medicine and Arthroscopy Review (31wrote that injections of platelet-rich plasma have led to reduced pain and improved recovery in the rotator cuff with the restoration of function.

A September 2022 paper in the Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine (32) examined treatment offerings for older patients with partial-thickness rotator cuff tears. The authors noted as we have discussed above, “Treatment for such tears remains controversial.” In this paper, the researchers explored platelet-rich plasma with an aim to evaluate the effects on shoulder function improvement and pain relief of platelet-rich plasma injection in partial-thickness rotator cuff tears, at different follow-up times (3-6 weeks, 8-12 weeks, and more than 24 weeks after treatment) compared with placebo or corticosteroids.

  • This study included 11 studies, with a total of 641 patients (318 treated with platelet-rich plasma and 323 controls).
  • Compared with placebo, platelet-rich plasma exhibited significantly better effects on shoulder function improvement and pain relief at all 3 follow-up times.
  • Compared with other conservative treatments (corticosteroids), platelet-rich plasma exhibited significantly better effects on shoulder function and pain relief at 8-12 weeks and at more than 24 weeks after treatment.

Doctors at the Seoul National University College of Medicine publishing in the American Journal of Sports Medicine (33described how PRP heals tendons on the cellular level: “Platelet-rich plasma promoted cell proliferation and enhanced gene expression and the synthesis of tendon matrix in tenocytes from human rotator cuff tendons with degenerative tears. . . These findings suggest that PRP might be used as a useful biological tool for regenerative healing of rotator cuff tears.”

This research was supported by findings published in the journal BioMed Central Musculoskeletal Disorders (34) by German medical university researchers who wrote: “PRP is a source of growth factors such involved with tendon-bone healing. PRP had an anabolic effect (the ability to construct connective tissue) on the human rotator cuff tenocytes.”

More recently a May 2021 study from doctors at the Illinois Sports Medicine and Orthopaedic Centers (35) published in the journal BioMed Central Musculoskeletal Disorders found that “PRP injection is a safe and effective treatment for rotator cuff injury in patients who have failed conservative treatment of activity modification and physical therapy without deterioration of results two years after treatment. Better results are obtained with greater structural tendon damage than in shoulders with inflammation without structural damage.”

Here is the summary outline of this research which lead to that conclusion:

  • Seventy-one shoulders with MRI-confirmed, rotator cuff (tears) who failed conservative treatment, had dual PRP injection into the rotator cuff. Standard function, pain, and quality of life scores were taken and compiled at 6, 12, and 24 months after treatment.
  • No adverse events were seen in any patient.
  • Based on global rating scores positive results were seen in:
    • 77.9 % of patients at 6 months,
    • 71.6 % at 1 year, and
    • 68.8 % of patients at 2 years.
  • No patient with a partial tear had clinical evidence of progression to a full-thickness tear.

A June 2022 paper (35) from doctors and surgeons in Taiwan compared the effectiveness of platelet rich plasma (PRP) and hyaluronic acid injections for partial rotator cuff tears.  In this study, three doses of hyaluronic acid were given against a single injection of PRP. Both injection groups were also given rehabilitation exercises. Both groups were assessed using standardized scoring for pain, function, and quality of life. Scores were recorded at baseline and at one and three months after injection.

  • Twenty-four received ultrasound-guided single PRP injection plus rehabilitation exercise.
  • Twenty-four received three doses of hyaluronic acid injection plus rehabilitation exercise.

In both the single PRP injection plus rehabilitation exercise and three doses of hyaluronic acid injection plus rehabilitation exercise groups pain and function scores significantly improved at 1-month and 3-month follow-up

In both groups flexion and abduction range of motion significantly increased at the 3-month follow-up. The PRP group revealed a significantly better passive abduction range of motion in the third month than the hyaluronic acid injection group.

Conclusion: “Ultrasound-guided single PRP injection exhibited comparable benefit to three doses of hyaluronic acid injection in patients with partial-thickness rotator cuff tears short-termly, with an extended effect regarding passive shoulder abduction range of motion and functionality.”

Corticosteroids provide a fast pain-relieving effect and improvement in function in partial-thickness rotator cuff tears, but these effects diminish over time, whereas Prolotherapy provides a long-lasting effect.

Comparison to cortisone

Doctors at the National Taiwan University Hospital published their findings in the February 2019 edition of the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (36) in which they suggest that for “patients with rotator cuff tendinopathy, corticosteroid plays a role in the short term (3-6 weeks) but not in long-term (over 24 weeks) pain reduction and functional improvement. By contrast, PRP and Prolotherapy may yield better outcomes in the long term (over 24 weeks).

A December 2020 study in the Journal of Clinical Medicine (37) compared the effectiveness of cortisone and other conservative care treatments for partial rotator cuff tears and partial-thickness tears. Specifically the comparison between cortisone and Platelet-rich Plasma. How effective these treatments were was measured by how much any treatment reduced pain and shoulder functionality. The findings: “. . . the treatment of partial rotator cuff tears with PRP injections seems to lead to significantly better outcomes in terms of pain and shoulder function in long term follow up. ”

Compared to the success we have seen with Prolotherapy and PRP in treating rotator cuff injuries, we believe it would be beneficial to try PRP injections first instead of surgery.

An April 2022 paper in the Journal of Sport Rehabilitation (38) assessed the effectiveness of Ultrasound-Guided corticosteroid injections, Prolotherapy, and exercise therapy on partial-thickness supraspinatus tears.

  • A total of 64 patients with clinically and radiologically diagnosed partial-thickness supraspinatus tear who received either a cortisone injection, dextrose Prolotherapy, or physical therapy combined with home-based exercise therapy were included. The main outcome measures were patients’ visual analog (PAIN) scale scores, Western Ontario Rotator Cuff (WORC – Disability, pain, and function) Index scores, and the Shoulder Pain and Disability Index scores at the baseline, three weeks, and three months.

“The effect of group, time, and group-time interaction on the visual analog scale, WORC, and Shoulder Pain and Disability Index scores were statistically significant (all the treatments demonstrated benefits).  . . Corticosteroids provide a fast pain-relieving effect and improvement in function in partial-thickness rotator cuff tears, but these effects diminish over time, whereas Prolotherapy provides a long-lasting effect. ”

What are we seeing in this image?

Shoulder joint instability causes an accelerated and stressful force on the rotator cuff tendons. This stress and force put great strain on the rotator cuff tendons which move the shoulder joint through a normal range of motion. The strain on the tendons causes weakness, fraying, tearing, and whole joint capsule instability. Rotator cuff tear caused by chronic wear and tear is a symptom of shoulder instability.

Shoulder joint instability causes accelerated and stressful force on the rotator cuff tendons. This stress and force puts great strain on the rotator cuff tendons which move the shoulder joint through normal range of motion. The strain on the tendons causes weakness, fraying, tearing and whole joint capsule instability. Rotator cuff tear caused by chronic wear and tear is a symptom of shoulder instability.

Stem cell and PRP injection treatment option

Some of the treatments we may use are stem cell treatments where we would use your own stem cells to accelerate your rotator cuff healing or your own blood platelets, better known as Platelet Rich Plasma therapy. We offer a unique method for these treatments in that we couple them with comprehensive Prolotherapy injections.

NOTE: We do not offer stem cell injections to every patient. We have found PRP and Prolotherapy injections can offer the desired results of the treatment without the need for stem cell therapy.

Let’s help you with your research:

Above we cited February 2022 research published in the journal Orthopedic Research and Reviews. (1)  Later in that paper is this discussion on stem cell treatments. Here are parts of that discussion: “Stem cell treatment for rotator cuff tears is a promising development because they have been shown to result in an anti-inflammatory response, improved tendon regeneration, optimized collagen fiber arrangement, higher load-to-failure, and higher tensile strength. . . In a non-randomized controlled trial comparing the effects of an exercise regime to PRP combined with bone marrow aspirate (BMAC-PRP complex) on partial rotator cuff tears, the experimental group demonstrated a significantly greater improvement in (pain, function, and disability) scores compared to controls at three months. Tear size decreased after BMAC-PRP injection although this did not significantly differ from controls.”

A January 2018 study from South Korean doctors published in the Journal of Orthopaedic Surgery and Research (39) found a positive benefit of combined bone marrow aspirate concentrate (stem cell) and platelet-rich plasma BMAC-PRP injection in patients with a partial tear of the rotator cuff tendon.

The study had a very short follow-up time to measure results, where the success of arthroscopic surgery is measured in terms of follow-up at 12 and 24 months, the South Korean team published results at 3 weeks and three months and felt confident that the results at three-month follow-up would confidently predict patient success at 24 months.

What is the outcome of a partially torn rotator cuff tendon treated one time with PRP and bone marrow aspirate concentrate?

  • The study showed that BMAC-PRP injection was associated with improved function and pain by standardized scoring systems at 3 months after injection as compared to the control group, while the change in the tear size and MMT (manual muscle test) did not differ between groups. There were no side effects or complications of BMAC-PRP injection.
    • The researchers pointed out that the BMAC-PRP injection did not decrease tear size within three months, but instigated other repairs. This is something we see often too and why we advise patients that stem cell treatments and PRP treatments, even when combined, require more than one treatment session.
    • They also point out that the best results were seen at the 12-week mark, where a significant improvement in shoulder function was noted. At the 8-week mark of tendinopathy, symptoms showed improvement.
    • Also noted was an improvement in tendon function that might be explained by the enhancement of tendon-bone junction healing by PRP.

Caring Medical Research

Ross Hauser, MD discusses the Prolotherapy treatment results that were published a few years ago as part of our article series on the use of Hackett-Hemwall dextrose Prolotherapy, as well as shows a treatment demonstration from a Prolotherapy symposium he taught in 2021

Do you have a question about your rotator cuff tear?

We hope you found this article informative and that it helped answer many of the questions you may have surrounding your shoulder problems.  If you would like to get more information specific to your challenges please email us: Get help and information from our Caring Medical staff

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