The supraspinatus is the most commonly affected rotator cuff tendon/muscle. It helps lift the arm up, out to the side. When people encounter pain or difficulty lifting their arm like this, they like to jump to the conclusion that the rotator cuff (or supraspinatus) is to blame. Sometimes it is. However, despite the fact that MRIs regularly show changes or “abnormalities” with the supraspinatus tendon or muscle, other mechanisms are at play when it comes to lifting your arm. The supraspinatus does not work in isolation (things rarely do). Problems with joints, capsules, and nerves can also make lifting your arm painful and/or weak.
When I say supraspinatus “problem” I am referring to a tendinopathy, tear, pull, or strain. How I rule in a supraspinatus problem, given no red flags. Step One: Rule out neck derangement. Step Two: Rule out mid back derangement. Step Three: Rule out shoulder derangement. Step Four: Rule out frozen shoulder. Step Five: Rule in supraspinatus problem.
Some of these steps can be completed by asking a few questions. Some require movement testing. The most important point is to recognize that other things can also create weak and/or painful shoulder abduction or a positive “empty can” or “full can” orthopedic special test. -- Laura
Ultrasound imaging (USI) may be one of the newer forms of imaging, but newer doesn't mean better. USI for abdominal organs and the uterus is valuable, but its value when it comes to musculoskeletal problems is not convincing. A new study in Physical Therapy in Sport entitled “Ultrasound imaging features of the Achilles tendon in dancers. Is there a correlation between the imaging and clinical findings? A cross-sectional study” does not find a correlation.
The study looked at the Achilles tendons of 29 dancers with no pain nor functional problems - 58 tendons total. With USI, 62% of the young women had at least one abnormal tendon. Of the 58 tendons, 26 were abnormal when examined using USI. This study also points to others that do not find a relationship between what USI shows and pain.
How is this applicable? Say one of these dancers with an abnormal tendon starts having pain in her Achilles after the study. It’s easy to assume that the tendon - which was abnormal on USI - is the problem. However, given that it was abnormal without pain, it makes sense that something else could be causing pain - perhaps something that cannot be visualized. For that reason, we should test a person’s musculoskeletal system by moving her musculoskeletal system. Versus imaging, that gives us improved chances to find the true source of the problem. --Laura
Patient complaint: right Achilles pain preventing him from training and competing (sprinting). By taking a thorough history and mechanical exam, it is clear his pain is originating in his low back. When taking his verbal history, what made me suspect his spine - and not his actual Achilles tendon - is the tendon pain variability, his report of intermittent low back and calf "tightness," and his history of other lower extremity issues.
If a tendon itself is the problem it is very unlikely that it “warms up” and pain during a workout subsides. The more you stress a problematic tendon, the worse it usually gets. However, it is likely that a joint moves from a place causing pain to a harmless position as you move (“warm up”).
When we did the mechanical exam he had an obstruction to movement in his right low back and sciatic nerve tension on his right. When he initially did 10 right, single-leg calf raises, the Achilles burned starting with repetition #2. After repeatedly moving his spine into extension with pressure (about 30 repetitions), this test was much less painful. His homework was therefore spine extension in lying with belt overpressure. After a couple weeks of doing that (10 repetitions every 2 hours), we added spine bending to ensure the injury was fully healed. He was discharged at visit 4 with a prevention and maintenance program. -- Laura
The primary law with tendons is first clinically (not via imaging) ruling out that it’s not a joint problem masquerading as a tendon problem. Joint misalignments (spine and extremities) can cause pain in tendinous areas and inhibit muscles, which unfortunately leads many clinicians to treat innocent tendons. If the “tendon” is taking forever to heal, it’s likely not the tendon. Tendon/muscle pathology comprises a small proportion of problems.
When it’s indeed a tendon, rehabilitation is relatively straightforward. A tendon’s collagen often needs to be remodeled to become functional again. This is accomplished by regularly (several times per day) loading the tendon for a few months. It may never look normal again, however. Causes why the tendon became dysfunctional initially should be addressed, and proper spine and extremity mechanics should be ensured.
The load a tendon needs is individual-specific. I find the load that creates pain (about 6/10) for 15-20 minutes following the exercise - which may be isometric, concentric, eccentric, or ballistic. Once a load doesn’t meet that criterion, the load is increased so it’s effective. Tendon rehabilitation is largely about 1) ensuring it’s a tendon, 2) educating the patient, and 3) encouraging briefly painful self-management with limited office visits. -- Laura
Tendon issues are unfortunately incorrectly diagnosed all the time. That is, issues that are not tendon problems are diagnosed as tendon problems. “Issues” and “problems” refer to tendinopathy, tendinosis, tendonitis, and tendon tears. We have hundreds of tendons in our bodies; they are pieces of tissue that connect our muscles to our bones. Those that get an unfair share of the blame are the four rotator cuff tendons in the shoulder, the two main tendon groups at the elbow, the Achilles tendon of the ankle, and the patellar tendon at the knee. This frequent misdiagnosis happens for two chief reasons.
One, tendon problems are common on images such as MRI so, in the absence of an expert clinical mechanical exam, the tendon is identified as the culprit simply because of a picture. The concern with this is that tendon problems are common on images such as MRI in people with NO pain or other symptoms. So if Sarah has a large supraspinatus tendon tear on her MRI and no shoulder pain and John has a large supraspinatus tendon tear on his MRI and does have shoulder pain, can you assert that the supraspinatus tendon tear is causing his pain? Not from that information alone, you can’t.
(Say your car starts acting funny. You open up the hood to take a quick look. You see a lot of leaves around the engine. Can you assume that the leaves are causing the problem? Or would your mechanic need to run some diagnostic tests? After all, we know that there are plenty of cars with leaves stuck under the hood that run just fine.)
The second reason for this misdiagnosing conundrum? Lack of expert clinical “mechanics.” When I first began as a physical therapist, if a patient came to me with shoulder pain (with or without an MRI report), I performed the orthopedic shoulder tests I learned in school. While there are several tests aimed at diagnosing a rotator cuff tendon problem, these tests are actually not very good. They can regularly be positive when something other than the tendon is at fault. If physical therapists, orthopedists, general practitioners, surgeons, chiropractors, athletic trainers, etc. are still basing their diagnoses (and subsequent treatment) on these tests, they are missing a lot of crucial information.
Once I learned during my post-doctoral coursework that other problems can mimic tendon problems, I began looking for these in the clinic. And, lo and behold, most of the time it is something else causing the patient’s problem. The top two problems that mimic tendon problems are misalignment in the spine joints whose nerves send signals to the area of the tendon (eg the neck) and misalignment in the extremity joint closest the tendon (eg the shoulder).
How do I diagnose a tendon problem then? These are my top two criteria:
In closing, don’t jump to conclusions based on an image or the location of pain. A lot of shoulder pain is coming from the neck or from a shoulder joint that is not sitting properly – not a rotator cuff tendon. Likewise, a lot of pain on the outside of the hip is coming from the low back or from a hip joint that is not sitting properly – not the gluteal tendon. Our bodies are beautiful in their intricacy and nuance, making my job as a mechanical therapist exciting. It is the ability to understand this nuance that makes a clinician effective at diagnosing and treating. --Laura
Tendons are structures that join muscles to bones. Tendinitis/tendonitis refers to an inflamed tendon. When there is an injury to any structure in the body, an inflammatory process is begun in order to heal the body. This process usually lasts only a few days. Tendons can certainly be inflamed - tendinitis exists - but it is rare that a patient seeks medical care during this short time frame. What is more common is that a patient will seek care later on, when the pain has been around for a bit longer. A tendon problem (in the elbow, shoulder, knee, etc.) that is not acutely inflamed is generally referred to as a tendinopathy.
Tendinopathy broadly means there is a problem with the tendon. As a tendon is part of a muscle, its job is to provide strength. I examine a tendon, therefore, by stressing the tendon's ability to provide strength, or resist force. Additionally, a pathological tendon will usually hurt when it is being stretched, so I can stretch it to see the patient's response. When I listen to a patient's history, I am looking for a report of consistent pain each and every time the tendon is used. If the patient says some days it hurts when I lift my arm forwards and other days it doesn't, for example, the tendon (or muscle, for that matter) is not at fault. A pathological tendon will not feel fine sometimes when it is used and hurt other times - it will consistently hurt when stressed. When I hear reports of variability of symptoms, I begin to think of joint problems, not tendon or muscle problems. In that case, I will examine the tendon, but will also look closely at joint mechanics. In my clinical experience, tendinopathy is commonly misdiagnosed; more often a joint is at fault.
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