What is it about shoulders? They seem to cause an inordinate amount of problems, especially when the rotator cuff is involved. And invariably, there is a question as to whether a shoulder claim involves an acute injury, an acute aggravation of a preexisting condition, an occupational injury, or the mere manifestation of a preexisting condition. One of the biggest challenges in claims is determining whether and to what extent a shoulder condition is work-related. Unfortunately, this task is often difficult for physicians too.
The hallmark of an acute rotator cuff injury is an asymptomatic shoulder, a discernible traumatic event, and immediate pain and weakness. Unfortunately, this type of presentation accounts for less than 10% of all rotator cuff tears according to some literature. In addition, the medical literature suggests that acute rotator cuff tears are underdiagnosed in emergency departments and often attributed to tendonitis, bursitis, arthritis, or some combination of all three. To further complicate matters, many other conditions of the shoulder, cervical spine, and peripheral nerve system can produce symptoms that are similar to symptoms occurring in rotator cuff tears. And finally, a somewhat sizable percentage of the population has asymptomatic rotator cuff tears which makes the determination of the etiology of the cuff defect difficult to determine.
The best way to assess whether a rotator cuff tear is acute or traumatic is with diagnostic imaging. Numerous studies have found that mid-substance tears are more likely to be acute than insertional tears. The presence of swelling and joint fluid or a hematoma also suggest that a tear is acute. To the contrary, the absence of joint and bursal fluid suggests a chronic tear. The presence of fatty infiltration and the degree of rotator cuff atrophy are also useful findings to assess the chronicity of the tear. Interestingly, at least one study found that the “injury mechanism and the activity at the moment of injury did not correlate with the presence of a rotator cuff lesion,” but also found “a strong age correlation, with a prevalence of RCTs above 50% in patients aged over 50 years…” This study suggests a shockingly high rate of rotator cuff injury resulting from shoulder trauma in persons over 50.
The strong correlation between age and rotator cuff tear caused one study’s authors to postulate that “it is even likely that there [is] no such thing as an acute cuff tear without some previous tendon degeneration.” The authors of another study address the complicated relationship between the chronicity and symptomatic nature of rotator cuff tears and note that the “duration of symptoms does not necessarily reflect the duration a patient has had a rotator cuff tear… It is not understood why full-thickness tears become symptomatic in some individuals and not others.” How then, can any physician determine to a reasonable degree of medical certainty if a particular rotator cuff tear relates to the patient’s employment in the absence of diagnostic imaging that suggests a tear is acute?
In truth, the answer is that any physician who attributes a symptomatic rotator cuff tear to a workplace injury is most likely engaging in speculation if there is no acute traumatic event and no diagnostic imaging evidence demonstrating that the tear is acute. This doesn’t mean that the tear can’t be acute and work-related, simply that there is no reasonable basis for a physician to determine the exact etiology of the tear to a reasonable degree of medical certainty. In handling claims, it is important to recognize these situations and pose the question to the IME doctor directly as to there is any way, given the current state of evidence-based medicine, to determine what caused a rotator cuff tear (or caused it to become symptomatic) to a reasonable degree of medical certainty in the absence of an acute traumatic event, diagnostic imaging evidence that a tear is acute, or occupational risk factors such as repetitive overhead work. If there are no specific risk factors, no precipitating injury, and no diagnostic imaging evidence of an acute tear, the answer should always be “no.”
From a claims perspective, there are several useful things that can be gleaned from the medical literature addressing rotator cuff conditions. First, a definitive assessment of causation in the absence of a discrete, acute precipitating event with imaging evidence demonstrating the presence of an acute tear or an occupational risk factor should be considered impossible. Of course treating surgeons will attempt to relate rotator cuff conditions to workplace injuries that do not meet the above criteria, but it is incumbent from a claims perspective that the IME physician points to the relevant medical literature and explains why it is not possible, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, to determine the etiology of a rotator cuff tear in the absence of the above criteria.
Second, it should not come as a surprise if an employee over 40 who says they hurt their shoulder and is told that it is just a strain or tendinitis when they go the ER later discovers she has a rotator cuff tear. The medical literature suggests that clinical examination in the emergency setting underestimate the presence of rotator cuff tears. The relevant study found that in the patient population complaining of an acute shoulder injury who have an inability to perform active abduction above 90° and normal radiographs, more than 50% will have rotator cuff tears. In establishing reserves, if the medical records show normal radiographs coupled with an inability to actively abduct the shoulder above 90°, it may be wise to consider the likelihood of a rotator cuff tear requiring surgical intervention to be 50%.
Finally, knowing the different shoulder, neck, and peripheral nerve conditions that have similar symptom constellations to rotator cuff tear will help to assess what the likely diagnosis will be based on the clinical history, examination, and positive findings. Thus, a shoulder complaint that can be localized to the acromioclavicular joint, is more likely to be a shoulder separation or acromioclavicular arthritis than a rotator cuff tear. In another example, a complaint of gradual onset of shoulder pain with weakness that is especially noticeable during sleeping hours is likely to be a chronic rotator cuff tear or advanced impingement syndrome than an acute rotator cuff injury.
The bottom line is that shoulder injuries are often difficult claims, especially when they involve rotator cuffs. Knowing the medical literature about how rotator cuff tears occur and what suggests acute versus chronic tears can help guide the claims analysis. To learn more about the diagnosis, management, and prognosis of rotator cuff tears, join us on February 26, 2015 for the Medical Systems Advanced Medical Topics in Worker’s Compensation in Brookfield, Wisconsin at which Dr. Bartlett will give an in-depth presentation on acute shoulder injuries. Claim handlers and legal professionals alike will gain valuable information on what claims will likely be compensable and what medical information can be used to defend against those which should not be compensable.Back to Blog