My 72-year old mother has been told her torn rotator cuff cannot be repaired. She seems in good health and she's fairly active for her age. Why can't this be fixed?

Massive, chronic tears of the rotator cuff (RCTs) can't be repaired in the standard, conventional way of reattaching the torn tendon where it belongs. In older adults, the tear may have been present for so long that the area has filled in with fatty tissue. In such cases, the rate of retear is very high when a repair is attempted.

Treatment is possible but just what's the best treatment is judged on a case-by-case basis. After the surgeon examines the patient, imaging studies are taken. X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs each give a slightly different view of what's going on inside and around the shoulder joint.

Arthritis in the joint makes the treatment decision more difficult. The patient's age, activity level, amount of muscle atrophy, and fatty infiltration are all taken into consideration. Sometimes the best treatment plan is nonoperative. Inflammatories, steroid injections, and physical therapy may be advised.

When surgery is recommended, it may be to debride the area (clean it up). Or a tendon transfer may be possible. In this case, the surgeon takes a muscle from some other area and transfers it to the shoulder. The transferred tendon functions like the torn tendon of the rotator cuff. A tendon transfer is a complex operation. A long rehab program is likely so the patient must be motivated and active enough to do it before tendon transfer is considered.

When the shoulder is unstable and the rotator cuff tear is inoperable, then a shoulder replacement may be the best treatment choice. Many irreparable RCTs can be managed nonoperatively. This may be what your mother's surgeon was suggesting.

Reference: 

David M. Dines, MD, et al. Irreparable Rotator Cuff Tears: What to Do and When to Do It; The Surgeon's Dilemma. In The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery. October 2006. Vol. 88-A. No. 10. Pp. 2294-2302.

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