Your shoulder hurts and you see your doctor. You expect an MRI to be performed, and many doctors will oblige you and order that MRI. But .. what if I told you that almost no one has a “normal” shoulder MRI? What if I told you that before your injury, or before your pain started your MRI might have shown tears simply because we age and wear out? Shoulder MRIs performed too soon often lead to unnecessary surgery. Many of the changes we see on a shoulder MRI are simply a consequence of activity and aging.
We have a huge problem in the United States where you as a patient are being over-diagnosed and over-treated. This has been an emerging trend for a while. We have a high-tech low-touch approach to treating patients. Many physicians will look at an MRI reading and tell you what’s wrong and that you need surgery to fix it. We deserve far better than that.
Do I really need that MRI?
Many patients who hear the word “tear”, think (understandably) that must mean that it is abnormal and often choose to have the tear fixed when their physician recommends it. It sounds logical.. no? Unfortunately, many of your parts in your body wear out. They fray, they tear and those findings frequently mean nothing. Most of you with labral tears in your shoulder, especially superior labral tears or SLAP lesions have had them for years before your shoulder was MRI performed. Yes.. the tear was pre-existing … and therefore may NOT be the source of your pain and thus does NOT require surgery.
A recent scientific paper reported the results of a shoulder MRI performed in 50 patients between 40 and 60 years of age.
The authors concluded:
To avoid overtreatment, physicians should realize that superior labral tears diagnosed by MRI in individuals between the ages of 45 and 60 years may be normal age-related findings.
The authors found that upwards of 70% of shoulders had a superior labral tear- or a SLAP lesion. Again, that means that 70% of people between 40 and 60 years of age have these “tears” and do not know it. Yes, many were overhead athletes, and many were very active.
Shoulder MRI will almost always find something wrong
There is no doubt that labral tears and SLAP lesions are being over-diagnosed and therefore over-treated. That translates to many people having unnecessary surgery on the shoulder. What we know about SLAP lesion surgery is that:
- It is a surgery with a high incidence of post surgical stiffness as a complication.
- A surgery with a very high failure rate.
- A surgery that most of you do not need performed.
- A surgery with a long convalescence– often times meaning months out of work.
Shoulder MRI findings do not often require treatment
An MRI performed on patients with no shoulder pain can reveal a very high rate of labral tears, specifically superior labral tears or SLAP lesions. Obtaining a routine MRI because you have had shoulder pain for a week from working out hard, or you were working in your garden for a few hours is not a wise decision on the part of your doctor. Time, rest, and PT tend to work very well at restoring your function and alleviating your pain– for most of you. If your Orthopedist will not see you unless you already had an MRI — well, you need a new Orthopedist. We should endeavor to treat patients, not MRI findings — and all the recent scientific literature shows that this approach is the proper one.
In addition, without a detailed history — your story, and physical exam it is impossible to determine if the findings on the MRI are potentially the source of your pain.
Before you consider going for that MRI because you’ve had a week or two of shoulder pain you need to keep in mind that there is a strong chance that the MRI will reveal something.
Jean H says
Thank you Dr. Luks that is good news. What is injected? I have seen saline and acetic acid in articles. Do you have a reference on the technique?
Leon Richard, PT, DPT, OCS says
Excellent piece I’m sharing on my clinic page and personally.
Peggy Potochar says
This advice is what my occupational therapist has been telling me for the last year, and it goes for most parts of the body. Rest, rehab and strengthening has worked miracles for me. Thanks for the great column.
David Anible says
I am a 63 yo male. I worked construction for many years. 10 years ago I started working out and lifting weights. After about 6 weeks I started experiencing shoulder pain, especially at night. Was difficult raising my arms above my head at times. I stopped working out and the pain gradually went away but on rare occasions. I tried a couple times afterwards to get back into working out with the same results. I had an MRI of both shoulders in 09/2017. Both shoulders had intrasubstance hyperintensity involving IGHL and a partial tear and strain (ALPSA). I wish to work out again and be able to work with my arms over my head. I’ve read a lot but do not know which way to turn on this one. Would you advise?
Howard J. Luks, MD says
I cannot offer specific treatment advice in this format. In this setting, there is no doctor-patient relationship, so I can only try and educate people to improve their conversations with their own health professionals.
I can say that most shoulder docs who agree that an ALPSA lesion is not the cause of pain at your age. Labral tears in the shoulder are exceptionally common and are considered an age-appropriate finding in many, if not most people over 45-50.
In most 63-year-olds, the more likely causes of pain include the biceps, the rotator cuff and an area we call the subacromial space (bursitis). Perhaps a second opinion on your MRI reading, and a second opinion by a shoulder specialist will help you better determine what the cause of pain is.