Journal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery

Physical therapy versus natural history in outcomes of rotator cuff tears: the Rotator Cuff Outcomes Workgroup (ROW) cohort study

Published:December 13, 2018DOI:


      We compared the outcomes of patients who performed physical therapy versus those who did not in a longitudinal cohort of patients undergoing nonoperative treatment of rotator cuff tears. We also assessed whether there was a dose effect in which the pain and functional outcomes in patients performing physical therapy plateaued.


      From February 2011 to June 2015, a multicenter cohort of patients with rotator cuff tears undergoing nonoperative treatment completed a detailed health and demographic questionnaire and the Shoulder Pain and Disability Index (SPADI) at baseline and 3, 6, 12, and 18 months. Longitudinal mixed models were used to assess whether physical therapy in the first 3 months predicted SPADI scores and dose effect.


      Among the 55 patients in our cohort, the performance of physical therapy within the first 3 months predicted better SPADI scores versus nonperformance of physical therapy at 3 months (P = .02). Scores were similar between groups at 6, 12, and 18 months. A threshold of 16 physical therapy sessions was observed for pain and functional improvement during follow-up, after which significant improvement was not seen.


      Patients who performed physical therapy within the first 3 months had statistically significant improvements in pain and function as measured by the SPADI score at 3 months compared with patients who did not report performing physical therapy. Depending on the minimal clinically important difference used for the SPADI score, our results could be interpreted as meeting the minimal clinically important difference threshold or not. Improvement in outcomes was observed up to 16 sessions of physical therapy, after which outcomes plateaued.

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