Evaluation of survivorship of asymptomatic degenerative rotator cuff tears in patients 65 years and younger: a prospective analysis with long-term follow-up

Michael T. Torchia, Julianne A. Sefko, Karen Steger-May, Sharlene A. Teefey, William D. Middleton, Jay D. Keener

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Background: The purpose of this prospective study is to describe the mid- to long-term natural history of untreated asymptomatic degenerative rotator cuff tears in patients 65 years and younger. Methods: Subjects with an asymptomatic rotator cuff tear in one shoulder and a contralateral painful cuff tear aged 65 years or younger were enrolled in a previously described prospective longitudinal study. Annual physical and ultrasonographic evaluations and surveillance for pain development were performed using independent examiners for the asymptomatic shoulder. Results: Two hundred twenty-nine participants (mean age 57.1 years) were followed for a median of 7.1 (range 0.3-13.1) years. Tear enlargement occurred in 138 (60%) shoulders. Full-thickness tears were at greater risk for enlargement compared with partial-thickness (hazard ratio [HR] 2.93, 95% confidence interval [CI] 1.71-5.03, P < .0001) and control shoulders (HR 18.8, 95% CI 4.63-76.1, P < .0001). Mean survival rates from Kaplan-Meier analyses indicate that full-thickness tears enlarged earlier (mean 4.7, 95% CI 4.1-5.2 years) than partial-thickness (mean 7.4, 95% CI 6.2-8.5 years) and control shoulders (mean 9.7, 95% CI 9.0-10.4 years). Tear presence in the dominant shoulder was associated with a greater enlargement risk (HR 1.70, 95% CI 1.21-1.39, P = .002). Patient age (P = .37) and gender (P = .74) were not associated with tear enlargement. The 2-, 5-, and 8-year survivorship free of tear enlargement for full-thickness tears was 74%, 42%, and 20%, respectively. Shoulder pain developed in 131 (57%) shoulders. Pain development was associated with tear enlargement (HR 1.79, 95% CI 1.24-2.58, P = .002) and was more common in full-thickness tears compared with controls (P = .0003) and partial tears (P = .01). An analysis of progression of muscle degeneration was performed in 138 shoulders with full-thickness tears. Tear enlargement was seen in 104 of 138 (75%) of these shoulders during follow-up (median 7.7 [interquartile range 6.0] years). Progression of muscle fatty degeneration was seen in the supraspinatus in 46 (33%) and the infraspinatus in 40 (29%) shoulders. Adjusting for age, both the presence of fatty muscle degeneration and the progression of muscle changes for both the supraspinatus (P < .0001) and infraspinatus (P < .0001) muscles were associated with tear size. For both the supraspinatus (P = .03) and infraspinatus (P = .03) muscles, tear enlargement was significantly associated with progression of muscle fatty degeneration. Anterior cable integrity was significantly associated with the risk of muscle degeneration progression for both the supraspinatus (P < .0001) and the infraspinatus (P = .005) muscles. Conclusions: Asymptomatic degenerative rotator cuff tears progress in patient 65 years and younger. Full-thickness rotator cuff tears have a higher risk of continued tear enlargement, progression of fatty muscle degeneration, and pain development than partial-thickness tears.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1432-1444
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2023


  • Level II
  • Natural history
  • Prognosis Study
  • Prospective Cohort Design
  • degenerative
  • long-term follow-up
  • rotator cuff tear
  • tear progression


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