A Prospective Evaluation of Survivorship of Asymptomatic Degenerative Rotator Cuff Tears

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Background:The purpose of this prospective study was to report the long-term risks of rotator cuff tear enlargement and symptom progression associated with degenerative asymptomatic tears.Methods:Subjects with an asymptomatic rotator cuff tear in one shoulder and pain due to rotator cuff disease in the contralateral shoulder enrolled as part of a prospective longitudinal study. Two hundred and twenty-four subjects (118 initial full-thickness tears, fifty-six initial partial-thickness tears, and fifty controls) were followed for a median of 5.1 years. Validated functional shoulder scores were calculated (visual analog pain scale, American Shoulder and Elbow Surgeons [ASES], and simple shoulder test [SST] scores). Subjects were followed annually with shoulder ultrasonography and clinical evaluations.Results:Tear enlargement was seen in 49% of the shoulders, and the median time to enlargement was 2.8 years. The occurrence of tear-enlargement events was influenced by the severity of the final tear type, with enlargement of 61% of the full-thickness tears, 44% of the partial-thickness tears, and 14% of the controls (p < 0.05). Subject age and sex were not related to tear enlargement. One hundred subjects (46%) developed new pain. The final tear type was associated with a greater risk of pain development, with the new pain developing in 28% of the controls, 46% of the shoulders with a partial-thickness tear, and 50% of those with a full-thickness tear (p < 0.05). The presence of tear enlargement was associated with the onset of new pain (p < 0.05). Progressive degenerative changes of the supraspinatus muscle were associated with tear enlargement, with supraspinatus muscle degeneration increasing in 4% of the shoulders with a stable tear compared with 30% of the shoulders with tear enlargement (p < 0.05). Nine percent of the shoulders with a stable tear showed increased infraspinatus muscle degeneration compared with 28% of those in which the tear had enlarged (p = 0.07).Conclusions:This study demonstrates the progressive nature of degenerative rotator cuff disease. The risk of tear enlargement and progression of muscle degeneration is greater for shoulders with a full-thickness tear, and tear enlargement is associated with a greater risk of pain development across all tear types.Level of Evidence:Prognostic Level II. See Instructions for Authors for a complete description of levels of evidence.

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