Rotator cuff pathology in athletes

Sports Med. 1997 Sep;24(3):205-20. doi: 10.2165/00007256-199724030-00009.


The rotator cuff is the primary dynamic stabiliser of the glenohumeral joint and is placed under significant stress during overhead and contact sports. Mechanisms of injury include repetitive microtrauma, usually seen in the athlete involved in overhand sports, and macrotrauma associated with contact sports. Rotator cuff injury and dysfunction in the overhand athlete may be classified based on aetiology as primary impingement, primary tensile overload, and secondary impingement and tensile overload resulting from glenohumeral instability. A thorough history and physical examination are paramount in the evaluation, classification and treatment planning of the athlete with rotator cuff pathology. Imaging studies are a helpful adjunct to the history and physical. Athletes with primary impingement are usually middle aged or older and often have chronic shoulder pain and sometimes weakness associated with overhand sporting activities. Night pain is typical of full thickness rotator cuff tears. Impingement signs are positive and strength of elevation and external rotation are often limited. They usually respond to a nonoperative rehabilitation programme centred on decreasing inflammation, restoring range of motion and strengthening the rotator cuff and scapular stabilisers. Depending on the degree of cuff pathology, acromioplasty, debridement of partial cuff tears, and repair of full thickness tears are usually successful in those who fail a rehabilitation programme. Overhand athletes with cuff pathology secondary to subtle anterior instability are usually young and complain of pain and decreased throwing velocity. Instability may be so subtle that it is only detectable through a positive relocation test on examination. The majority of these athletes do not have a Bankart lesion on magnetic resonance imaging or arthroscopic examination. Arthroscopic examination usually demonstrates anterior capsular laxity (positive 'drive-through' sign), as well as superior-posterior labral and cuff injury typical of internal impingement. If rehabilitation alone is not successful, a capsulolabral repair followed by rehabilitation may allow the athlete to return to their previous level of competition. The athlete with an acute episode of macrotrauma to the shoulder resulting in cuff pathology usually presents with pain, limited active elevation and a positive 'shrug sign'. Arthroscopy and debridement of thickened, inflamed or scarred subacromial bursa with cuff repair or debridement as indicated is usually successful in those who do not respond to a rehabilitation programme.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Arthroscopy
  • Athletic Injuries / classification
  • Athletic Injuries / etiology*
  • Athletic Injuries / rehabilitation
  • Athletic Injuries / surgery
  • Cumulative Trauma Disorders / etiology
  • Diagnostic Imaging
  • Humans
  • Joint Instability / complications
  • Medical History Taking
  • Middle Aged
  • Muscle Weakness / etiology
  • Patient Care Planning
  • Physical Examination
  • Physical Therapy Modalities
  • Range of Motion, Articular
  • Rotation
  • Rotator Cuff / anatomy & histology
  • Rotator Cuff / physiology
  • Rotator Cuff / surgery
  • Rotator Cuff Injuries*
  • Rupture
  • Shoulder Impingement Syndrome / etiology
  • Shoulder Joint / anatomy & histology
  • Shoulder Joint / physiology
  • Stress, Mechanical
  • Tensile Strength