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What is a partial tear of the rotator cuff?

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Updated January 02, 2010

Question: What is a partial tear of the rotator cuff?
The rotator cuff is a group of tendons that surround the shoulder joint. Rotator cuff tears are a common orthopedic problem, and often these tears are so-called partial tears of the rotator cuff. What is the difference between a partial rotator cuff tear and a full thickness rotator cuff tear?
Answer: A partial tear of the rotator cuff is an area of damage to the rotator cuff tendons, where the tear does not go all the way through the tendons.

Do partial rotator cuff tears require surgery?
Sometimes. Nearly all partial thickness rotator cuff tears can be initially treated without surgery. During this time, other treatments, most importantly physical therapy, can be attempted to allow the tendon to heal.

If the symptoms persist despite these treatments, then surgery may be considered for a partial thickness rotator cuff tear. Determining when surgery is necessary for a rotator cuff tear is similar for both partial and complete rotator cuff tears.

Is the surgery for a partial rotator cuff tear different?
It depends on what is seen at the time of arthroscopy. If less than 50% of the tendon is torn, then the tear usually does not require repair. In these cases, removing the frayed and damaged tendon, as well as removing any inflamed bursa, will often relieve symptoms. If more than 50% of the tendon has been torn, a rotator cuff repair will be performed.

Repair of a partial rotator cuff tear is usually quite strong. Compared to full rotator cuff tears, in a repair of a partial rotator cuff tear, there is less stress on the repaired tendon because the disruption of the tendon is incomplete. This is advantageous for healing, and lessens the possibility of the repair failing.

How do I know if surgery is right for a partial rotator cuff tear?
If more conservative treatments are not working to relieve your symptoms, then surgery may be appropriate. Deciding whether or not a repair is necessary is usually made at the time of surgery. Only then will your surgeon have an accurate idea of how much tendon is torn, and whether or not repair should be performed.

Sources:

Lehman RC, Perry CR. "Arthroscopic surgery for partial rotator cuff tears." Arthroscopy. 2003 Sep;19(7):E81-4.

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