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BackgroundRuptures of the tendons of the rotator cuff lead to profound and possibly irreversible changes in the structure and physiological properties of the rotator cuff muscles. Muscle atrophy and fatty infiltration are important prognostic factors that affect the natural history and outcome of treatment. The purpose of this study was to examine the amount of muscle atrophy and fatty infiltration in an animal model and to determine whether the repair of a longstanding tendon tear can reverse these changes.MethodsThe infraspinatus tendon in six sheep was released and encased in a silicone tube to prevent spontaneous healing. The musculotendinous unit was allowed to retract for forty weeks. Throughout this period, the muscular changes were studied with use of computed tomography, histological analysis, and electron microscopy. At forty weeks, the elasticity, intramuscular pressure, and perfusion were measured intraoperatively and a tendon repair was carried out. The structural changes of the muscle were studied for thirty-five weeks after the repair. The animals were then killed, and the musculotendinous units were examined macroscopically and by computed tomography, histological analysis, and electron microscopy.ResultsAt the time of the tendon release, the infraspinatus showed no fatty changes. The force needed to cause a tendon excursion of 1 cm was a mean (and standard deviation) of 6.8 ± 1 N. The application of tension on the tendon did not alter the perfusion and decreased the intramuscular pressure. After the tendon release, muscular atrophy developed and there was a significant increase (p < 0.001) in interfascicular and intrafascicular fat, representing fatty infiltration rather than fatty degeneration. Furthermore, there was an increase of interstitial connective tissue. At the time of the tendon repair, between forty and forty-two weeks after the release, there was a sevenfold poorer elasticity of the musculotendinous unit but preserved muscle perfusion. The structural changes increased six weeks after the repair and then recovered partially at twelve and thirty-five weeks thereafter but only to the amount demonstrated before the repair.ConclusionsMusculotendinous retraction induced by tendon release is associated with profound changes in the structure and function of the affected muscle. Vascularization, intramuscular pressure, and individual fiber composition are not markedly affected, and muscle fibers do not appear to degenerate. However, muscle atrophy, infiltration by fat cells, and an increase of interstitial connective tissue lead to impairment of the physiological properties of the muscle. These changes were irreversible under the conditions of this experiment with the repair technique used.Clinical RelevanceRotator cuff tendon tears lead to substantial and progressive muscular changes with a severity that is proportional to the amount of musculotendinous retraction. If muscular function is to be preserved, a repair may need to be performed before marked retraction has occurred or new or different techniques for repair need to be developed.

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