What test is used to identify a rotator cuff tear?

Answered by Phillip Nicastro

The drop arm test is a commonly used physical examination maneuver to identify a rotator cuff tear, specifically involving the supraspinatus tendon. This test is particularly helpful in diagnosing full-thickness tears and can be a useful tool for assessing sub-acromial pain syndrome or distinguishing between different shoulder pathologies.

To perform the drop arm test, the patient is typically asked to actively abduct their arm to shoulder level. The examiner then supports the arm and instructs the patient to slowly lower their arm back down to their side. If the patient is unable to maintain control and experiences sudden pain or weakness during the descent, it may indicate a positive drop arm test and suggest a possible rotator cuff tear.

When interpreting the results of the drop arm test, it is important to consider other clinical findings and imaging studies to confirm the diagnosis. While a positive drop arm test is suggestive of a rotator cuff tear, it is not definitive and should be used in conjunction with other diagnostic tools.

In my own experience as a healthcare professional, I have found the drop arm test to be a valuable component of the physical examination when evaluating patients with suspected rotator cuff tears. It provides a quick and relatively simple way to assess for potential tears and can help guide further diagnostic evaluations, such as imaging studies like MRI or ultrasound.

It is important to note that the drop arm test has some limitations. It may not be as accurate in detecting partial-thickness tears or tears involving other tendons of the rotator cuff. Additionally, there can be false positives or negatives depending on factors such as patient cooperation, pain tolerance, and other shoulder pathologies that may mimic the symptoms of a rotator cuff tear.

To summarize, the drop arm test is a physical examination maneuver commonly used to identify full-thickness rotator cuff tears, particularly involving the supraspinatus tendon. While it is a useful tool in the evaluation of shoulder pathology, it should be interpreted in conjunction with other clinical findings and imaging studies for an accurate diagnosis.