Labral Tears

What is a labral tear?

A labral tear is a detachment of the tissue that surrounds the socket of the shoulder joint. It can cause pain and a catching sensation in the shoulder.

What is the labrum?

The shoulder is made up of three bones: the scapula (shoulder blade), the humerus (upper arm bone), and the clavicle (collarbone). A part of the scapula, called the glenoid, makes up the socket of the shoulder. The glenoid is very shallow and flat. The labrum is a rim of soft tissue that makes the socket more like a cup. The labrum turns the flat surface of the glenoid into a deeper socket that moulds to fit the head of the humerus.

The rotator cuff surrounds the shoulder joint. The rotator cuff is formed by the tendons of four muscles: the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis. Tendons attach muscles to bones. Muscles move the bones by pulling on the tendons. The rotator cuff helps raise and rotate the arm. As the arm is raised, the rotator cuff also keeps the humerus tightly in the glenoid of the scapula.

The soft labral tissue can be caught between the glenoid and the humerus. When this happens, the labrum may start to tear. If the tear gets worse, it may become a flap of tissue that can move in and out of the joint, getting caught between the head of the humerus and the glenoid. The flap can cause pain and catching when you move your shoulder. Several tendons and ligaments attach to the labrum that help maintain the stability of the shoulder. So when the labrum tears, the shoulder often becomes much less stable.

What causes labral tears?

Labral tears are often caused by a direct injury to the shoulder, such as falling on an outstretched hand. The labrum can also become torn from the wear and tear of activity, a condition called overuse. An injured labrum can lead to shoulder instability. The extra motion of the humerus within the socket causes additional damage to the labrum. An extremely unstable shoulder may slip or dislocate. This can also cause the labrum to tear.

The biceps tendon attaches to the front part of the labrum. The biceps is the big muscle on the front of your upper arm. Sports can cause injuries to the labrum when the biceps tendon pulls sharply against the front of the labrum. Baseball pitchers are prone to labral tears because the action of throwing causes the biceps tendon to pull strongly against the top part of the labrum. Weightlifters can have similar problems when pressing weights overhead. Golfers may tear their labrum if their club strikes the ground during the golf swing.

What are the symptoms?

The main symptom caused by a labral tear is a sharp pop or catching sensation in the shoulder during certain movements. This may be followed by a vague aching for several hours. At other times, the tear may not cause any pain. Shoulder instability from a damaged labrum may cause the shoulder to feel loose, as though it slips with certain movements.

How is it diagnosed?

Your doctor may suspect a labral tear based on your medical history. You will be asked questions about your pain and past injuries to your shoulder that may suggest labral damage. In the physical examination, there are several shoulder movements that can bring on the symptoms. You may feel a catching sensation as your arm is raised, and there may be pain when the arm is held overhead. If your arm is held in front of your body, with the palm of the hand facing downward, you may feel pain when your doctor tries to push down on your arm.

Labral tears are difficult to see, even in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. Confirming the diagnosis of a labral tear can be extremely difficult. A surgeon may need to look into your shoulder using an arthroscope. The arthroscope is a small TV camera that is inserted into the shoulder joint through a very small incision. The surgeon can then see pictures of the joint on a TV screen. This allows the surgeon to look directly at the labrum to see if it is torn.

What is the treatment?

Nonsurgical treatment:
Your doctor's first goal will be to control your pain and inflammation. Initial treatment for pain control is usually rest and anti-inflammatory medication, such as aspirin or ibuprofen. Your doctor may suggest a cortisone injection if you have trouble getting your pain under control. Cortisone is a strong anti-inflammatory medication. It can provide good relief, although its effects are temporary. Your doctor may also refer you for physiotherapy.

Surgical treatment:
If your symptoms don't go away, you may need surgery.

If the tear is small and is mostly getting caught as you move the shoulder, simply removing the frayed edges and any loose parts of the labrum may get rid of your symptoms. This is called labral debridement.

If the tear is larger, the shoulder may also be unstable. If this is the case, the labral tear may need to be repaired, rather than simply removed. Several techniques allow surgeons to place "anchors" into the bone around the shoulder joint and reattach the labrum using the arthroscope. There are many variations of these anchors, but most are drilled into the bone and have sutures (stitches) attached that are then used to tie the labrum down to the bone and enable the labrum to heal back in the appropriate position.

Biceps tenodesis: sometimes the main problem is the biceps tendon pulling on the labrum rather than the labral tear itself. In these cases, detaching the biceps tendon from the labrum and fixing it lower down into the bone of the humerus can be the most effective surgical treatment.