Epidemiology, natural history, and indications for treatment of rotator cuff tears.
The etiology of rotator cuff disease is likely multifactorial, including age-related degeneration and microtrauma and macrotrauma. The incidence of rotator cuff tears increases with aging with more than half of individuals in their 80s having a rotator cuff tear. Smoking, hypercholesterolemia, and genetics have all been shown to influence the development of rotator cuff tearing. Substantial full-thickness rotator cuff tears, in general, progress and enlarge with time. Pain, or worsening pain, usually signals tear progression in both asymptomatic and symptomatic tears and should warrant further investigation if the tear is treated conservatively. Larger (>1-1.5 cm) symptomatic full-thickness cuff tears have a high rate of tear progression and, therefore, should be considered for earlier surgical repair in younger patients if the tear is reparable and there is limited muscle degeneration to avoid irreversible changes to the cuff, including tear enlargement and degenerative muscle changes. Smaller symptomatic full-thickness tears have been shown to have a slower rate of progression, similar to partial-thickness tears, and can be considered for initial nonoperative treatment due to the limited risk for rapid tear progression. In both small full-thickness tears and partial-thickness tears, increasing pain should alert physicians to obtain further imaging as it can signal tear progression. Natural history data, along with information on factors affecting healing after rotator cuff repair, can help guide surgeons in making appropriate decisions regarding the treatment of rotator cuff tears. The management of rotator cuff tears should be considered in the context of the risks and benefits of operative versus nonoperative treatment. Tear size and acuity, the presence of irreparable changes to the rotator cuff or glenohumeral joint, and patient age should all be considered in making this decision. Initial nonoperative care can be safely undertaken in older patients (>70 years old) with chronic tears; in patients with irreparable rotator cuff tears with irreversible changes, including significant atrophy and fatty infiltration, humeral head migration, and arthritis; in patients of any age with small (<1 cm) full-thickness tears; or in patients without a full-thickness tear. Early surgical treatment can be considered in significant (>1 cm-1.5 cm) acute tears or young patients with full-thickness tears who have a significant risk for the development of irreparable rotator cuff changes.