Are pulley exercises initiated 6 weeks after rotator cuff repair a safe and effective rehabilitative treatment?

There are few level 1 or 2 evidence studies that examine rehabilitation after rotator cuff repair. Pulleys have been used in postoperative shoulder rehabilitation with the intention of improving range of motion and developing strength. There is a concern that the use of pulleys in rehabilitation of rotator cuff repairs may contribute to excessive scapular motion (scapular substitution) and potentially inferior outcomes.

This study tests the hypothesis that rotator cuff repair patients treated with pulley exercises would have increased scapular substitution and inferior patient-determined outcome scores, range of motion, and strength compared with patients treated with an alternative rehabilitation program without pulleys.

A total of 27 patients who underwent rotator cuff repair were randomized to a rehabilitation group that used pulleys initiated 6 weeks postoperatively, and 26 patients followed a rehabilitation protocol without pulleys. Inclusion criteria were: patients undergoing arthroscopic rotator cuff repair. Exclusion criteria were: large to massive rotator cuff tears, revision rotator cuff repair, glenohumeral osteoarthritis, adhesive capsulitis, and a symptomatic contralateral shoulder.

Outcomes of the intervention were patient-determined outcome scores (Western Ontario Rotator Cuff Index [WORC], American Shoulder and Elbow Surgeons [ASES] Shoulder Score, Single Assessment Numeric Evaluation [SANE], Shoulder Activity Level, and Simple Shoulder Test [SST]), range of motion, scapular substitution, and strength. Outcomes were determined at 6, 12, 18, 26, and 52 weeks.

Both groups had statistically significant improvements in WORC, ASES Shoulder Score, SST, and SANE scores over time after rotator cuff repair. There were no differences between the interventions for WORC, ASES Shoulder Score, SANE, Shoulder Activity Level, or SST. Both interventions demonstrated improvements in shoulder flexion, abduction, external rotation, strength, and scapular substitution over time after rotator cuff repair. However, there was no difference in range of motion, strength, or scapular substitution between interventions.

A rotator cuff repair rehabilitation program that uses pulleys does not result in inferior outcomes, as determined by patient-determined outcome scores, measurements of scapular substitution, range of motion, and scaption strength.