The authors conducted a systematic review to assess the effectiveness of extracorporeal shock wave therapy (ESWT) for the treatment of calcific and noncalcific tendonitis of the rotator cuff. Conservative treatment for rotator cuff tendonitis includes physiotherapy, nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs, and corticosteroid injections. If symptoms persist with conservative treatment, surgery is often considered. Extracorporeal shock wave therapy has been suggested as a treatment alternative for chronic rotator cuff tendonitis, which may decrease the need for surgery. Articles for this review were identified by electronically searching Medline, EMBASE, Cumulative Index to Nursing & Allied Health Literature (CINAHL), and Evidence Based Medicine (EBM) and hand-screening references. Two reviewers selected the trials that met the inclusion criteria, extracted the data, and assessed the methodological quality of the selected trials. Finally, the strength of scientific evidence was appraised. Evidence was classified as strong, moderate, limited, or conflicting. Sixteen trials met the inclusion criteria. There were only five randomized, controlled trials and all involved chronic (>/=3 months) conditions, three for calcific tendonitis and two for noncalcific tendonitis. For randomized, controlled trials, two (40%) were of high quality, one (33%) for calcific tendonitis and one (50%) for noncalcific tendonitis. The 11 nonrandomized trials included nine that involved calcific tendonitis and two that involved both calcific and noncalcific tendonitis. Common problem areas were sample size, randomization, blinding, treatment provider bias, and outcome measures. There is moderate evidence that high-energy ESWT is effective in treating chronic calcific rotator cuff tendonitis when the shock waves are focused at the calcified deposit. There is moderate evidence that low-energy ESWT is not effective for treating chronic noncalcific rotator cuff tendonitis, although this conclusion is based on only one high-quality study, which was underpowered. High-quality randomized, controlled trials are needed with larger sample sizes, better randomization and blinding, and better outcome measures.