Background: Rotator cuff tears are very common, but little is known about the outcome of nonoperative treatment of symptomatic tears in terms of progression and the need for surgical intervention.
Methods: Fifty-nine shoulders in fifty-four patients (thirty-three women and a mean age of 58.8 years) with rotator cuff tears on initial magnetic resonance imaging who had been managed nonoperatively were studied retrospectively. All had magnetic resonance imaging scans acquired six months or more after the initial study. The progression of the rotator cuff tears was associated with age, anatomical and associated parameters, follow-up time, and structural and other magnetic resonance imaging findings.
Results: Baseline magnetic resonance imaging scans demonstrated thirty-three full-thickness tears, twenty-six partial-thickness tears, and four combined full-thickness and partial-thickness tears. Fifty-eight of the fifty-nine tears involved the supraspinatus tendon, and ten involved multiple tendons. Progression in tear size occurred more often among the patients who were followed more than eighteen months (thirteen [48%] of twenty-seven shoulders) compared with those who were followed for less than eighteen months (six [19%] of thirty-two shoulders). Five tears (one partial-thickness tear) decreased in size. More than half (52%; seventeen) of the thirty-three full-thickness tears increased in size compared with 8% (two) of the twenty-six partial-thickness tears (p = 0.0005). Only 17% (six) of the thirty-five tears in patients who were sixty years old or less deteriorated compared with 54% (thirteen) of the twenty-four tears in patients who were more than sixty years old (p = 0.007). No shoulder in a patient with a partial-thickness tear demonstrated supraspinatus atrophy, whereas 24% of those with a full-thickness tear demonstrated atrophy (p = 0.007). The proportion with an increase in tear size was significantly larger for shoulders with fatty infiltration than for those without it (p = 0.0089).
Conclusions: Factors that are associated with progression of a rotator cuff tear are an age of more than sixty years, a full-thickness tear, and fatty infiltration of the rotator cuff muscle(s). In the long-term follow-up of nonoperatively treated rotator cuff tears, magnetic resonance imaging can be used to monitor rotator cuff changes and guide patient management.
Level of Evidence: Prognostic Level IV. See Instructions to Authors for a complete description of levels of evidence.