Supraspinatus tear
Fig. 1  Supraspinatus tear

A  Supraspinatus tear is a common area of injury in the rotator cuff complex. These are a group of muscles surrounding the humerus that help to keep the shoulder(humerous) in place. They are the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, subscapularis, and teres minor muscles. These muscles  facilitate movement of the shoulder joint in different directions, ie. raising your arm overhead. Other supportive structures which help to stabilise the shoulder include the shoulder capsule and the ligaments of the shoulder. See video.


Supraspinatus Tear – Acute vs Degenerative

Acute tears to the rotator cuff muscles/tendons often occur due to sports or impact injuries. can occur alongside injuries like shoulder dislocation, clavicle fractures, or other rotator cuff injuries that can happen as the result of things like a fall on your outstretched arm or attempting to lift something too heavy; plus there are a variety of sports where the athletes are prone to shoulder damage like baseball, basketball, rugby, AFL Football, and tennis. Construction work and other high-risk physical jobs can also increase the likelihood of experiencing this type of injury.

Alternatively degenerative type tears can occur due to overuse and as a result of age and lifestyle. Instead of a single catastrophic episode or trauma to the shoulder, these tears are the result of damage and wear on the supraspinatus structure slowly over time. The likeliness of these issues increases with age and is more common in the dominant hand. In addition, if you experience a degenerative tear in one shoulder, you’re at a greater risk for a tear in the other shoulder. Men over forty are the most likely to have degenerative supraspinatus tears. Factors like smoking, hypercholesterolemia, weight and BMI, height, bone spurs, and other genetic factors increase the chances as well.

A Supraspinatus tendon tear can be full thickness (the entire muscle is affected) or partial thickness (incomplete tear). Tears can be symptomatic , where there is pain and your ability to perform basic everyday tasks is greatly reduced,  or it can be asymptomatic, meaning that the tear  causes very slight or no pain.


Difference between full and partial thickness Supraspinatus tear

You can partially or fully tear your supraspinatus muscle, and remember that these sorts of tears can be symptomatic (meaning they cause supraspinatus pain and inhibit your range of motion and ability to perform everyday tasks) or asymptomatic, meaning the tear is present but it not currently causing you pain or otherwise causing problems in your life. Partial thickness tears of the supraspinatus muscle are an incomplete disruption of muscle fibers.

If you have been diagnosed with a partial thickness tear and begin experiencing more pain you should talk to your orthopaedic surgeon. Sometimes partial tears can progress to full thickness tears. Full thickness tears can also occur spontaneously and are the complete disruption of the fibers of the supraspinatus muscle.

The supraspinatus tendon can also be the site of injury. Tendons have poor blood supply and will not heal themselves. The longer these tears are left untreated, the more chance the tendon tear will enlarge and retract which results in more difficult surgery to repair this damage.


Diagnosis of a Supraspinatus tear

Various orthopedic tests can help indicate the likelihood of a supraspinatus tear during a physical exam. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs), and ultrasound scans are all used to confirm diagnosis.



Depending on the severity of the tear, a surgeon may recommend starting with a non-surgical treatment like physiotherapy.  For most tears this is rarely effective. Cortisone injections can give short term relief but cause more harm long term. They can be effective if the main cause of pain is a sub-acromium bursitis

For full thickness tears and more major tears  there is significant damage to the tendon, various surgical procedures such as arthroscopic shoulder surgery are usually required. Full thickness tears will not heal without surgery. I have however seen cases where the supraspinatus muscle shrivels up after a full tear and basically withers away. In some such cases there is little or no pain at that stage and other muscles take over to a certain extent during shoulder movement, allowing the person to carry out normal daily activities.


To discuss your condition, make an appointment or get a second opinion please contact us.




Overview of Shoulder Impingement by Physiotherapist in Tralee

shoulder-ImpingementShoulder impingement is a very common cause of shoulder pain, where a supraspinatus tendon inside the shoulder rubs or catches on nearby tissue and/or bone(acromium) as you lift your arm. Your shoulder is made up of several joints, muscles and tendons which allow the great range of motion in your arm. There are three bones in the shoulder joint: your upper arm bone, your shoulder blade, and your collarbone . Your arm is kept in your shoulder socket by your rotator cuff muscles, along with ligaments and the joint capsule which envelopes the shoulder. There is a lubricating sac called a bursa between the supraspinatus muscle of the rotator cuff where the supraspinatus travels under the bone on top of your shoulder (acromion). The bursa allows the supraspinatus tendon to glide freely under the acromium when you move your arm. When the bursa becomes swollen and inflamed, the condition is called bursitis and is one cause of shoulder impingement. Bone spurs within the shoulder joint can also contribute to impingement, as can forward curving shoulders due to years of bad posture. Sometimes due to impingement and/or bone spurs the supraspinatus muscle or tendon can tear. It can also happen during an accident like a shoulder dislocation or falling on a shoulder etc. Those who do repetitive lifting or overhead activities using the arm, such as paper hanging, construction, or painting are also susceptible.


Symptoms of shoulder impingement

You may have pain and stiffness when you lift your arm. There may also be pain when the arm is lowered from an elevated position. Early symptoms may be mild. Patients frequently do not seek treatment at an early stage. These symptoms may include:

  • Minor pain that is present both with activity and at rest
  • Pain radiating from the front of the shoulder to the side of the arm
  • Sudden pain with lifting and reaching movements
  • Athletes in overhead sports may have pain when throwing or serving a tennis ball

As the problem progresses, the symptoms increase:

  • Pain at night
  • Loss of strength and motion
  • Difficulty doing activities that place the arm behind the back, such as buttoning or zippering

If the pain comes on suddenly, the shoulder may be severely tender. All movement may be limited and painful.


Imaging Tests

Other tests which may help your doctor confirm your diagnosis include:

X-rays. Becauses x-rays do not show the soft tissues of your shoulder like the rotator cuff, plain x-rays of a shoulder with rotator cuff pain are usually normal or may show a small bone spur. A special x-ray view, called an “outlet view,” sometimes will show a small bone spur on the front edge of the acromion.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and ultrasound. These studies can create better images of soft tissues like the rotator cuff tendons. They can show fluid or inflammation in the bursa and rotator cuff. In some cases, partial tearing of the rotator cuff will be seen.


The goal of treatment is to reduce pain and restore function. In planning your treatment, your doctor will consider your age, activity level, and general health.

TreatmentIn cases where there is a tear in the supraspinatus muscle or tendon, conservative treatment such as rest, physio etc rarely works. In milder cases rest along with rehab and correction of postural problems in the shoulder may work.Rest. Your doctor may suggest rest and activity modification, such as avoiding overhead activities.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines. Drugs like ibuprofen and naproxen reduce pain and swelling in mild cases.

Physical therapy. A physical therapist will initially focus on restoring normal motion to your shoulder. Stretching exercises to improve range of motion are very helpful. If you have difficulty reaching behind your back, you may have developed tightness of the posterior capsule of the shoulder (capsule refers to the inner lining of the shoulder and posterior refers to the back of the shoulder). Specific stretching of the posterior capsule can be very effective in relieving pain in the shoulder.

Once your pain is improving, your therapist can start you on a strengthening program for the rotator cuff muscles.

Steroid injection.  Cortisone is a very effective anti-inflammatory medicine. Injecting it into the bursa beneath the acromion can relieve pain and reduce symptoms dramatically if the sole cause of the impingement is bursitis.


Surgical Treatment

When nonsurgical treatment does not relieve pain, your doctor may reoved. This is also known as a subacromial decompression. These procedures can be performed using either an arthroscopic or open technique.

Arthroscopic technique. In arthroscopy, thin surgical instruments are inserted into two or three small puncture wounds around your shoulder. Your doctor examines your shoulder through a fiberoptic scope connected to a television camera. He or she guides the small instruments using a video monitor, and removes bone and soft tissue. In most cases, the front edge of the acromion is removed along with some of the bursal tissue.

Your surgeon may also treat other conditions present in the shoulder at the time of surgery. These can include arthritis between the clavicle (collarbone) and the acromion (acromioclavicular arthritis), inflammation of the biceps tendon (biceps tendonitis), or a partial rotator cuff tear.

Open surgical technique. In open surgery, your doctor will make a small incision in the front of your shoulder. This allows your doctor to see the acromion and rotator cuff directly.

Rehabilitation. After surgery, your arm may be placed in a sling for a short period of time. This allows for early healing. As soon as your comfort allows, your doctor will remove the sling to begin exercise and use of the arm.


Physiotherapists in Tralee, Co. Kerry for all your physiotherapy needs. Phone 0867700191