The Evolving Roles of MRI and Ultrasound in First-Line Imaging of Rotator Cuff Injuries

AJR Am J Roentgenol. 2021 Dec;217(6):1390-1400. doi: 10.2214/AJR.21.25606. Epub 2021 Jun 23.


Rotator cuff tears are the most likely source of shoulder pain in adults and may cause protracted disability. Management of rotator cuff tears is associated with considerable costs. Accurate diagnosis can guide surgical planning and help achieve a favorable clinical outcome. Although radiography remains the initial imaging test for shoulder injury, the roles of MRI and ultrasound (US) as first-line imaging after radiography are evolving. This article leverages current literature and the practical experience of subspecialty musculoskeletal radiologists from different institutions in describing a practical approach to imaging rotator cuff pathology. Both MRI and US are accurate for identifying rotator cuff tears, but each has advantages and shortcomings. As both modalities currently represent reasonable first-line approaches, considerable practice variation has evolved. Given the low cost of US, imagers should strive to optimize the quality of shoulder US examinations and to build referrer confidence in this modality. The roles of direct CT and MR arthrography as well as imaging evaluation of the postoperative rotator cuff are also considered. Through careful selection among the available imaging modalities and optimal performance and interpretation of such examinations, radiologists can positively contribute to the diagnosis and treatment of patients with rotator cuff injuries.

Keywords: MRI; rotator cuff; shoulder; ultrasound.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods*
  • Rotator Cuff / diagnostic imaging
  • Rotator Cuff Injuries / diagnostic imaging*
  • Ultrasonography / methods*