The Effect of Postoperative Passive Motion on Rotator Cuff Healing in a Rat Model

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Background: Surgical repairs of torn rotator cuff tendons frequently fail. Immobilization has been shown to improve tissue mechanical properties in an animal model of rotator cuff repair, and passive motion has been shown to improve joint mechanics in animal models of flexor tendon repair. Our objective was to determine if daily passive motion would improve joint mechanics in comparison with continuous immobilization in a rat rotator cuff repair model. We hypothesized that daily passive motion would result in improved passive shoulder joint mechanics in comparison with continuous immobilization initially and that there would be no differences in passive joint mechanics or insertion site mechanical properties after four weeks of remobilization.Methods: A supraspinatus injury was created and was surgically repaired in sixty-five Sprague-Dawley rats. Rats were separated into three postoperative groups (continuous immobilization, passive motion protocol 1, and passive motion protocol 2) for two weeks before all underwent a remobilization protocol for four weeks. Serial measurements of passive shoulder mechanics (internal and external range of motion and joint stiffness) were made before surgery and at two and six weeks after surgery. After the animals were killed, collagen organization and mechanical properties of the tendon-to-bone insertion site were determined.Results: Total range of motion for both passive motion groups (49% and 45% of the pre-injury values) was less than that for the continuous immobilization group (59% of the pre-injury value) at two weeks and remained significantly less following four weeks of remobilization exercise. Joint stiffness at two weeks was increased for both passive motion groups in comparison with the continuous immobilization group. At both two and six weeks after repair, internal range of motion was significantly decreased whereas external range of motion was not. There were no differences between the groups in terms of collagen organization or mechanical properties.Conclusions: In this model, immediate postoperative passive motion was found to be detrimental to passive shoulder mechanics. We speculate that passive motion results in increased scar formation in the subacromial space, thereby resulting in decreased range of motion and increased joint stiffness. Passive motion had no effect on collagen organization or tendon mechanical properties measured six weeks after surgery.Clinical Relevance: The results of the present study demonstrated a detrimental effect of early controlled passive motion following surgery in a rat model of rotator cuff injury and repair. When considered together with previous studies involving this model that have illustrated the beneficial effects of immobilization and the transient nature of range-of-motion losses associated with immobilization, these findings further support the need for clinical studies designed to investigate the effects of postoperative immobilization on rotator cuff tendon-to-bone healing.

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