Rotator cuff tears are very common in the general population, with around 10% of adults over the age of 60 having full thickness rotator cuff tears. That would be about 5.7 million Americans with full thickness tears. As a Physical Therapist, seeing clients with tears, one of the most common questions I get is “Will therapy fix the tear?” Large rotator cuff tears will not stitch themselves up with therapy. But what we can do is strengthen the other muscles around the tear to make the remaining rotator cuff and other surrounding muscles able to handle day to day activities and demands and reduce pain.
In a study performed by a group of highly trained orthopedic shoulder surgeons, they found that 75% of people with degenerative rotator cuff tears will improve with physical therapy alone (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3748251/). Not only did 75% of these people return to their prior activities with less pain, they did not go on to have surgery for at least 2 years after, and even up to 5 years. (The study only followed people for two years, but the lead surgeon on the study has followed people out for 5 years who are still doing well.)
Avoiding surgery means you will miss out with any risks associated with any invasive, surgical procedures, as well as the cost of surgery. Shoulder surgeries cost $10,000+ not necessarily including the cost of any aftercare following the surgery or medications, not to mention any time off of work that will be required during your recovery. In the study, clients came to Physical Therapy for an average of 12 visits, which would put the cost under $2000 for most people. Also, most people do not have to miss out on work days, or pay for any additional services with Physical Therapy first.
So even if your MRI shows a rotator cuff tear, Physical Therapy can still help reduce, or eliminate, your pain and help you to avoid surgery.
Thanks for reading!