Full-thickness rotator cuff tear

Last revised by Dr Joachim Feger on 11 Oct 2021

Full-thickness rotator cuff tears are a type of rotator cuff tear that extends from the bursal surface to the articular surface.

Full-thickness tears are common, their reported prevalence ranges from 5-17%. They are less common than partial-thickness tears, and their prevalence also increases with age 5.

Clinical symptoms are very variable and include various degrees of pain and/or a loss in strength and or function 2.

A full-thickness rotator cuff tear is characterized by a focal transmural tendon discontinuity with a connection between the glenohumeral joint and the subacromial-subdeltoid bursa.

Each one of the rotator cuff muscles can be affected, the supraspinatus muscle is most commonly affected, followed by infraspinatus, subscapularis and teres minor muscle.

Footprint (tendon insertion): often degenerative

Critical zone: degenerative or trauma related

Myotendinous junction: full-thickness tears are rare and only described in supra- and infraspinatus 3

They can be classified according to their shape or rather their geometry 2:

They usually appear as hypoechoic or anechoic defects where fluid occupies the area of the torn tendon. Fluid in the region of the torn tendon can also allow increased through-transmission of the ultrasound beam and can accentuate the appearance of the underlying cartilage. 

The most sensitive finding in full-thickness tears is thought to be the presence of fluid signal intensity in the location of the rotator cuff on fat-saturated T2-weighted or intermediate-weighted images 5.

Indirect signs on MRI are - subdeltoid bursal effusion, particularly if anterior, medial dislocation of biceps, fluid along biceps tendon and diffuse loss of peribursal fat planes.

Sensitivity and specificity is 92% and 93% 4.

Tendon retraction can be graded using the Patte classification. Muscle atrophy and fatty replacement might be seen in chronic cases.

MR arthrography can additionally detect the communication between glenohumeral joint and subacromial-subdeltoid bursa by contrast-extravasation through the tear.

Sensitivity and specificity is 95% and 99% for MR arthrography 4.

The report of rotator cuff tears, particularly if massive should include the following 1:

  • the lesion size – anteroposterior and mediolateral
  • description of tendon retraction e.g. Patte classification
  • the tear pattern – crescent shape, longitudinal (L-shape / U-shape), massive
  • tendon delamination
  • the number and description of tendons involved
  • muscular atrophy assessed with the tangent sign or scapular ratio
  • description and grading of fatty degeneration using the Goutallier classification

In full-thickness tears, surgical surgery will be indicated in many patients and the type of surgery will depend on the tear pattern, muscle atrophy and or fatty replacement of the cuff muscles, as well as co-existing injuries such as biceps tendon tears or instability, labral tears, glenohumeral arthritis, glenohumeral instability and acromioclavicular joint disease.  In addition tendon delamination has a negative effect on tendon quality and treatment outcome 1,2,5.

Crescent-shaped tears can be repaired with end-to-bone repair 2, longitudinal tears can be repaired with margin convergence and massive tears need more sophisticated treatment as interval slides or partial repair.

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Cases and figures

  • Case 1: ultrasound
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  • Case 2: MRI
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