3 differences in a SLAP tear vs. a rotator cuff tear

August 22, 2022

About 4.5 million Americans are treated for shoulder pain every year. Conditions and injuries ranging from arthritis to fractures can cause shoulder pain, but some of the most common shoulder injuries can involve tears. Rotator cuff tears — the tearing of the muscles or tendons in the shoulder — and superior labrum anterior and posterior (SLAP) tears — the tearing of the upper half of the labrum — are common. Without proper treatment, these tears can result in chronic pain, limited mobility and further injury. Knowing the difference between a SLAP tear and a rotator cuff tear can help you find a treatment plan that works for you. 

What’s the difference between a SLAP tear and a rotator cuff tear?

Rotator cuff and SLAP tears are different in many ways, despite sharing many of the same causes and symptoms. Some of the key differences between a SLAP tear vs. a rotator cuff tear include the following:

1. Rotator cuff and SLAP tears refer to different parts of the shoulder.

The rotator cuff includes four muscles and dozens of tendons that mobilize the shoulder joint. Together, they help move and rotate the shoulder in multiple directions. They are also crucial to activities like lifting and pulling objects. Like most of the body, rotator cuff muscles and tendons can only withstand a limited amount of force. They can rip if suddenly strained past their limit or overused over time.

Meanwhile, a SLAP tear refers to a cartilage tear — specifically in the chunk of cartilage called the labrum. The labrum’s role is to stabilize and cushion the shoulder joint, as well as provide shock absorption. The labrum is also where many rotator cuff ligaments, tendons, bones and muscles are attached. This makes the labrum an important site in the rotator cuff area.

2. Pain levels can differ in rotator cuff vs. SLAP tears.

Because of their different anatomical roles, pain levels can vary in rotator cuff tears vs. SLAP tears. A rotator cuff injury often leads to excruciating pain, especially at night. This pain can restrict daily activities such as reaching above the head and holding heavy objects.

On the other hand, a SLAP tear can lead to dull, consistent pain and a weakened shoulder. Most noticeably, SLAP tears can result in a grinding, locking or popping feeling when moving the shoulder.

3. Rotator cuff and SLAP tears can be treated differently.

Depending on the severity of the injury, patients can experience different treatment processes in rotator cuff vs. SLAP tears. In both tears, nonsurgical treatments like physical therapy can help patients regain their shoulder mobility and prevent further injury. Surgery might be necessary if nonsurgical options don’t provide results.

Rotator cuff repair surgery often involves reattaching a tendon to the humerus bone. Surgery recovery after a rotator cuff tear can be painful, lasting at least six months.

A SLAP tear repair might require arthroscopic surgery, or a surgery in which a doctor uses a small camera to diagnose and treat cartilage tears. The surgeon can then assess if any ligaments attached to the cartilage have been damaged as well. It could take up to six months for the labrum to be fully healed after a SLAP tear repair surgery. 

Alliance PTP is ready to help you find top-notch PT for rotator cuff and SLAP tears

At Alliance Physical Therapy Partners, we’re proudly bringing together physical therapy practices across the country to help people get the high-quality physical therapy they need. Want to see a physical therapist in person? We can put you in touch with an Alliance PTP partner that’s close to you and that can help you address your shoulder pain. We can also help you further pinpoint the differences in a rotator cuff vs. SLAP tear.

Not keen on in-person physical therapy sessions or not close to an Alliance PTP partner? No worries. We also offer effective and affordable virtual physical therapy through our Agile Virtual Physical Therapy platform. 

Contact our team today so we can help you find the most effective physical therapy services for your injury or condition.