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Rotator Cuff Tears: Can They Happen at Any Age?

Woman Holding Shoulder

Made up of four muscles whose tendons come together to cover the humerus and top of the shoulder, the rotator cuff is what allows shoulders to rotate and arms to lift.

In young people, rotator cuff tendons are generally healthy and robust unless subjected to repetitive overhead activities, such as throwing a baseball or swimming. These overhand sports may cause partial tears of the rotator cuff tendons, which results in thinning of the tendon. The good news is that these injuries can often be treated conservatively with physical therapy. Occasionally, young patients do suffer complete tears of the rotator cuff, often as the result of a traumatic injury. In these cases, when the tendon is torn completely away from the bone, surgery is required. In such cases, the healing rates and outcomes are excellent.

At the other end of the spectrum, rotator cuff tears in older patients are typically more degenerative in nature, as 30-50% of people over the age of 60 likely have some degree of rotator cuff tearing, often asymptomatic. A trial of conservative treatment, including rehabilitation and potentially an injection, can often help. Older patients with full-thickness tears who are very active and/or those that fail conservative treatment, may benefit from surgery. Because the underlying biology in elderly patients isn’t as good as in young patients, healing rates tend to be lower. Yet despite this, successful clinical outcomes are achieved in more than 90% of cases.

Taking these considerations into account, treatment protocols should be varied depending on the age and physical demand of the patient.

Dr. Joshua Dines, sports medicine surgeon

Dr. Joshua Dines is an orthopedic surgeon and a member of the HSS Sports Medicine Institute. He currently serves as an assistant team physician for the New York Mets.

The information provided in this blog by HSS and our affiliated physicians is for general informational and educational purposes, and should not be considered medical advice for any individual problem you may have. This information is not a substitute for the professional judgment of a qualified health care provider who is familiar with the unique facts about your condition and medical history. You should always consult your health care provider prior to starting any new treatment, or terminating or changing any ongoing treatment. Every post on this blog is the opinion of the author and may not reflect the official position of HSS. Please contact us if we can be helpful in answering any questions or to arrange for a visit or consult.