It is known that rotator cuff tears are sometimes accompanied by joint destruction. Our purpose was to elucidate the pathology with this condition. Thirty-two synovial fluid (SF) samples aspirated from the glenohumeral joints of patients with rotator cuff tears, including 7 with partial-thickness and 25 with full-thickness tears of the rotator cuff (10 massive and 15 isolated supraspinatus tendon (SSp) tears), were examined. Collagenase (MMP-1), stromelysin 1 (MMP-3), tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinases-1 (TIMP-1) and carboxy-terminal type II procollagen peptide (pCOL Il-C) were measured in the SF using the respective sandwich enzyme immunoassays. Glycosaminoglycan (GAG) was also quantified with a cationic dye binding method using 1,9-dimethylmethylene blue. Levels of any molecules except pCOL II-C in the SF appeared to be higher in full-thickness tears than those in partial-thickness tears. Moreover, levels of MMP-1, MMP-3 and GAG in the SF were significantly higher in massive tears of the rotator cuff in comparison with those in isolated SSp tears. Such significance was not observed in the levels of TIMP-1 or pCOL II C in the SF. We examined the relation of those levels with operative findings or clinical parameters from full-thickness tears, and observed significant correlations of the tear size with the levels of MMP-1, MMP-3 and GAG in the SF. Although these marker molecules in SF do not always originate from cartilage, our results may indicate the potential for accelerated cartilage-degrading activity in the glenohumeral joint in massive tears of the rotator cuff.