Background: Surgical repair of a torn rotator cuff is based on the belief that repairing the tear is necessary to restore normal glenohumeral joint (GHJ) mechanics and achieve a satisfactory clinical outcome.
Hypothesis: Dynamic joint function is not completely restored by rotator cuff repair, thus compromising shoulder function and potentially leading to long-term disability.
Study design: Controlled laboratory study and Case series; Level of evidence, 4.
Methods: Twenty-one rotator cuff patients and 35 control participants enrolled in the study. Biplane radiographic images were acquired bilaterally from each patient during coronal-plane abduction. Rotator cuff patients were tested at 3, 12, and 24 months after repair of a supraspinatus tendon tear. Control participants were tested once. Glenohumeral joint kinematics and joint contact patterns were accurately determined from the biplane radiographic images. Isometric shoulder strength and patient-reported outcomes were measured at each time point. Ultrasound imaging assessed rotator cuff integrity at 24 months after surgery.
Results: Twenty of 21 rotator cuff repairs appeared intact at 24 months after surgery. The humerus of the patients' repaired shoulder was positioned more superiorly on the glenoid than both the patients' contralateral shoulder and the dominant shoulder of control participants. Patient-reported outcomes improved significantly over time. Shoulder strength also increased over time, although strength deficits persisted at 24 months for most patients. Changes over time in GHJ mechanics were not detected for either the rotator cuff patients' repaired or contralateral shoulders. Clinical outcome was associated with shoulder strength but not GHJ mechanics.
Conclusion: Surgical repair of an isolated supraspinatus tear may be sufficient to keep the torn rotator cuff intact and achieve satisfactory patient-reported outcomes, but GHJ mechanics and shoulder strength are not fully restored with current repair techniques.
Clinical relevance: The study suggests that current surgical repair techniques may be effective for reducing pain but have not yet been optimized for restoring long-term shoulder function.