SLAP lesions are a unique type of labral tear in the shoulder. SLAP lesions occur in overhead athletes due to chronic repetitive stress. But many SLAP lesions are simply due to aging. How should your SLAP lesion be treated? MRI machines have become more powerful and radiologists have become better at interpreting the findings. Perhaps that is why shoulder surgeons have noticed a significant increase in the number of SLAP lesions being diagnosed across all age groups. It is important to bear in the mind the research of DePalma performed over 70 years ago. During his autopsy studies, he found that more than 75% of people over 60 had labral tears in the shoulder. Simply stated that means that the majority of these tears are not bothersome, do not hurt you and thus do not, in and of themselves require surgery. Again, as hard as it is to hear, sometimes our parts simply wear out. So it is important that we listen to you describe your symptoms, correlate that with a proper physical exam and then determine if a SLAP lesion is the cause of your pain.
What is a SLAP lesion or SLAP tear?
The superior labrum serves as the attachment for our biceps tendon inside the shoulder. The labrum plays a role in the stability of the shoulder. It helps keep the shoulder well seated within the socket during aggressive overhead activities such as pitching, swimming and playing volleyball. The superior labrum does not come into play from a functional perspective during our normal daily activities of dressing, feeding, cleaning, weeding, gardening, running, cycling, etc.
Why do SLAP lesions hurt?
SLAP lesions can lead to a unique form of instability (where the shoulder is “loose”), and as previously mentioned, primarily occurs in overhead athletes. When the shoulder is loose because of a SLAP tear, and the player puts their arm up in the throwing position they may feel pain in the back of the shoulder. We call this “internal impingement”. This occurs because the SLAP tear has led to a very subtle loosening (not enough for the shoulder to dislocate) which will hurt when the superior labrum (where the tear is) is stressed.
Does a SLAP Lesion require surgery?
A troubling study was just released …
A study in May 2012 issue of The American Journal of Sports Medicine reflects this trend (towards operating on too many SLAP tear). Alan L. Zhang et al looked at insurance data collected for over 11 million patients from 2004 to 2009. They found a remarkable 105% increase in SLAP repairs performed across the United States between 2004 and 2009.
The 20-29 year and 40-49 year age groups had the highest incidence of SLAP repairs. Males comprised approximately 75% of those surgical patients. Interestingly, SLAP repairs were performed more often in the West and the South compared to the Midwest and Northeast.
The majority of SLAP lesions or tears encountered in a typical orthopedists office do not need to be repaired and are usually not the source of pain. Even if the surgeon believes that the tear might be the source of pain, the results of repairing SLAP lesions has been relatively poor in patients over 35-40, so many researchers suggest that the tear not be fixed and that a biceps tenodesis be performed ( anchoring the biceps on the humerus and taking the stress off of the superior labrum.
SLAP lesions found in young pitchers, volleyball players, tennis players and swimmers can be fixed if the tear is leading to significant pain and the inability of the athlete to perform at their usual performance level. They do, however, have the option of changing positions, etc and not having surgery. But bear in mind, just because a SLAP lesion is fixed, does not mean you will return to pitching.
The results of SLAP lesion repairs and return to sports is also mixed. Some reports show that athletes can return to their prior performance levels, yet some recent literature shows that that might not be the case. The jury is still out on this.
SLAP lesions are very common. Just because you have one, does not mean you need surgery. If you are an overhead athlete and have internal impingement due to a SLAP tear you may choose to have surgery – but you may not be able to return to your prior level of functional performance. Tough decision.