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This is a plain English summary of an original research article. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and reviewer(s) at the time of publication.

This NIHR-funded trial in people over 50 years looked at whether open surgery compared with keyhole surgery for a common shoulder tear injury and improved shoulder function more. It found that there was little to choose between the two approaches in terms of benefits or costs.

The muscles and tendons around the shoulder form the rotator cuff. It is a common site for a tear injury, particularly in middle aged and older people. We don’t know the exact number of GP visits for rotator cuff pain in the UK, however, shoulder pain overall makes up 2.4% of all GP consultations.

The trial involved 273 patients and was carried out at 19 hospitals in the UK, so should be representative of UK practice. However, the trial had quite specific criteria for eligible participants’ injuries and some participants did not undergo their allocated operations.

Why was this study needed?

An estimated 14% of people in the UK have shoulder pain each year and 70% of those are likely to have rotator cuff problems. A tear to the rotator cuff makes it difficult to carry out many everyday activities.

Keyhole or arthroscopic surgery is less invasive than open surgery, while open surgery may give the surgeon better access for repair. Until this study, there had only been one small trial in a single hospital on the effectiveness of the operations and no research into cost effectiveness of the different approaches.

What did this study do?

The study started as a randomised controlled trial (called UKUFF) to compare open or arthroscopic surgery to repair a degenerative rotator cuff tear with a conservative strategy of rest, then exercise. However, the conservative management arm of the trial was discontinued as a high proportion of participants were thought to require surgery. The trial therefore recruited 273 participants aged 50 years or more with a degenerative, full-thickness rotator cuff tear to 19 UK hospitals and randomised their treatment to open or arthroscopic surgery. The main outcomes were patient reported scales of shoulder pain and ability to carry out daily activities, including the Oxford Shoulder Score (where 0 is worst function, 48 is best function). Cost effectiveness was based on changes to quality of life. The main outcomes were assessed at two years after surgery.

What did it find?

  • Open or arthroscopic surgery gave similar improvements in the Oxford Shoulder Score by two years after the operation. When analysed by the planned operation two years after arthroscopic surgery the score improved from 26.3 points (standard deviation [SD] 8.2) at baseline to 41.7 (SD 7.9) and for open surgery from 25.0 (SD 8.0) at baseline to 41.5 (SD 7.9). This was a non-significant difference between groups. The improvement from baseline for each group was significant and met a three point standard of improvement, set by the researchers as clinically important. Analysis of results by actual surgery undertaken also showed no significant difference between groups’ improved scores.
  • There was no significant difference in costs or quality of life between the two operations by two years after surgery. Overall treatment cost by two years was £2,567 (SD £176) for arthroscopic surgery and £2,699 (SD £149) for open surgery.
  • The rate of re-tear was similarly high in both groups at 46.4% of the arthroscopy group and 38.6% for the open surgery group, a difference that was not statistically different. However, even people whose rotator cuff tendons tore again within two years of surgery still had improved quality of life compared to before the operation. The improvement was similar in both groups. The Oxford Shoulder Score improved in the arthroscopy group to 41.8 (SD 8.8) and for open surgery, to 40.8 (SD 7.6).
  • Only 162 of the 273 participants (59%) actually had a rotator cuff repair operation. About half of the participants who didn’t have an operation found that their symptoms improved without surgery or they came off the waiting list because they became ill with another condition. The other half either had a different procedure or the rotator cuff was not torn or repairable.

What does current guidance say on this issue?

UK commissioning guidance from 2014 advises arthroscopic or open surgery options for rotator cuff repair, but does not make a recommendation on which to use. Similarly, American Association of Orthopedic Surgeons guidance from 2010 states that there is insufficient evidence on which to base choice of arthroscopic or open surgery for repairing the rotator cuff.

What are the implications?

This study recruited participants with a degenerative rotator cuff injury, 91% of whom had already undergone other treatment. Therefore, its findings are not necessarily applicable to younger people with a traumatic or new rotator cuff-related tear or pain. For people similar to those studied in this trial, either open or arthroscopic surgery can increase quality of life and may be equally cost effective. The findings are in line with 2014 UK guidance in offering either operation as options for repairing torn rotator cuff tendons. Patients should now be able to choose between procedures more easily since both improved outcomes but without any differences between them, both approaches therefore seem reasonable options. It is worth noting that the high rate of improvement with conservative, non-operative, management suggests a wait and see approach might be a third option for them.


Carr AJ, Cooper CD, Campbell MK, et al. Clinical effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of open and arthroscopic rotator cuff repair [the UK Rotator Cuff Surgery (UKUFF) randomised trial]. Health Technol Assess. 2015;19(80):1-218.

This project was funded by the Health Technology Assessment programme of the National Institute for Health Research.


AAOC. Optimizing the management of rotator cuff problems. Rosemont (IL): American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons; 2010.

Commissioning guide 2014. Subacromial shoulder pain. London: British Elbow & Shoulder Society (BESS), British Orthopaedic Association (BOA), Royal College of Surgeons for England (RCSEng); 2014.

Dawson J, Fitzpatrick R, Carr A. Questionnaire on the perceptions of patients about shoulder surgery. J Bone Joint Surg Br. 1996;78(4):593–600.

Dawson J, Rogers K, Fitzpatrick R, Carr A. The Oxford Shoulder Score revisited. Arch Orthop Trauma Surg. 2009;129(1):119–23.

Payne, J. Rotator cuff disorders [internet]. Leeds; Patient; 2015.

Produced by the University of Southampton and Bazian on behalf of NIHR through the NIHR Dissemination Centre


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The Oxford Shoulder Score is a measure of shoulder pain and function which is assessed by patients themselves. It consists of 12 questions about the last four weeks, concerning ability to carry out activities such as getting dressed, using public transport or doing shopping. Each of the 12 questions is answered with a rating of 0 to 4, where four is the best function and least pain, so the best possible score is 48. In this study, the researchers considered that a three point change represents a clinically important difference.


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