Background: Shoulder pain is a very common symptom. Disorders of the rotator cuff tendons due to wear or tear are among the most common causes of shoulder pain and disability. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), magnetic resonance arthrography (MRA) and ultrasound (US) are increasingly being used to assess the presence and size of rotator cuff tears to assist in planning surgical treatment. It is not known whether one imaging method is superior to any of the others.
Objectives: To compare the diagnostic test accuracy of MRI, MRA and US for detecting any rotator cuff tears (i.e. partial or full thickness) in people with suspected rotator cuff tears for whom surgery is being considered.
Search methods: We searched the Cochrane Register of Diagnostic Test Accuracy Studies, MEDLINE, EMBASE, and LILACS from inception to February 2011. We also searched trial registers, conference proceedings and reference lists of articles to identify additional studies. No language or publication restrictions were applied.
Selection criteria: We included all prospective diagnostic accuracy studies that assessed MRI, MRA or US against arthroscopy or open surgery as the reference standard, in people suspected of having a partial or full thickness rotator cuff tear. We excluded studies that selected a healthy control group, or participants who had been previously diagnosed with other specific causes of shoulder pain such as osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis. Studies with an excessively long period (a year or longer) between the index and reference tests were also excluded.
Data collection and analysis: Two review authors independently extracted data on study characteristics and results of included studies, and performed quality assessment according to QUADAS criteria. Our unit of analysis was the shoulder. For each test, estimates of sensitivity and specificity from each study were plotted in ROC space and forest plots were constructed for visual examination of variation in test accuracy. Meta-analyses were performed using the bivariate model to produce summary estimates of sensitivity and specificity. We were unable to formally investigate potential sources of heterogeneity because of the small number of studies.
Main results: We included 20 studies of people with suspected rotator cuff tears (1147 shoulders), of which six evaluated MRI and US (252 shoulders), or MRA and US (127 shoulders) in the same people. Many studies had design flaws, with the potential for bias, thus limiting the reliability of their findings. Overall, the methodological quality of the studies was judged to be low or unclear. For each test, we observed considerable heterogeneity in study results, especially between studies that evaluated US for the detection of full thickness tears and studies that evaluated MRA for the detection of partial thickness tears. The criteria for a positive diagnostic test (index tests and reference standard) varied between studies.Meta-analyses were not possible for studies that assessed MRA for detection of any rotator cuff tears or partial thickness tears. We found no statistically significant differences in sensitivity or specificity between MRI and US for detecting any rotator cuff tears (P = 0.13), or for detecting partial thickness tears (P = 1.0). Similarly, for the comparison between MRI, MRA and US for detecting full thickness tears, there was no statistically significant difference in diagnostic performance (P = 0.7). For any rotator cuff tears, the summary sensitivity and specificity were 98% (95% CI 92% to 99%) and 79% (95% CI 68% to 87%) respectively for MRI (6 studies, 347 shoulders), and 91% (95% CI 83% to 95%) and 85% (95% CI 74% to 92%) respectively for US (13 studies, 854 shoulders). For full thickness tears, the summary sensitivity and specificity were 94% (95% CI 85% to 98%) and 93% (95% CI 83% to 97%) respectively for MRI (7 studies, 368 shoulders); 94% (95% CI 80% to 98%) and 92% (95% CI 83% to 97%) respectively for MRA (3 studies, 183 shoulders); and 92% (95% CI 82% to 96%) and 93% (95% CI 81% to 97%) respectively for US (10 studies, 729 shoulders).Because few studies were direct head-to-head comparisons, we could not perform meta-analyses restricted to these studies. The test comparisons for each of the three classifications of the target condition were therefore based on indirect comparisons which may be prone to bias due to confounding.
Authors' conclusions: MRI, MRA and US have good diagnostic accuracy and any of these tests could equally be used for detection of full thickness tears in people with shoulder pain for whom surgery is being considered. The diagnostic performance of MRI and US may be similar for detection of any rotator cuff tears. However, both MRI and US may have poor sensitivity for detecting partial thickness tears, and the sensitivity of US may be much lower than that of MRI. The strength of evidence for all test comparisons is limited because most studies were small, heterogeneous and methodologically flawed, and there were few comparative studies. Well designed studies that directly compare MRI, MRA and US for detection of rotator cuff tears are needed.