Original article| Volume 96, ISSUE 3, P484-488, March 2015

Do Overhead Sports Increase Risk for Rotator Cuff Tears in Wheelchair Users?

Published:October 19, 2014DOI:



      To analyze whether frequent overhead-sports activity increases the risk for rotator cuff disease in patients with spinal cord injuries (SCIs) who are wheelchair dependent.


      Cross-sectional study, risk analysis.


      Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, Trauma Surgery and Spinal Cord Injury.


      Patients (N=296) with SCI requiring the full-time use of a manual wheelchair were recruited for this study. The total population was divided into 2 groups (sports vs no sports), among them 103 patients playing overhead sports on a regular basis (at least 1–2 times/wk) and 193 patients involved in overhead sports less than once a week or in no sports activity at all. The mean age of the sports group was 49.1 years. The mean duration of wheelchair dependence was 26.5 years. The mean age of the no-sports group was 48 years. The mean duration of wheelchair dependence was 25.2 years. Each individual completed a questionnaire designed to identify overhead-sports activity on a regular basis and was asked about shoulder problems. Magnetic resonance imaging scans of both shoulders were performed in each patient and analyzed in a standardized fashion.



      Main Outcome Measures

      Possible differences in continuous data between patients with and without rotator cuff tear were evaluated. The relative risk of suffering from a rotator cuff tear between patients playing overhead sports and those not playing overhead sports was calculated.


      One hundred three patients played overhead sports regularly and 193 did not. There was no difference between groups regarding age, sex, level of SCI, and duration of wheelchair dependence. The body mass index was significantly lower in the sports group than in the no-sports group (P<.0001). A rotator cuff tear was present in 75.7% of the patients in the sports group and in 36.3% of the patients in the no-sports group (P<.0001). Rotator cuff tears were symptomatic in 92.6% of the patients. The estimated risk increase for the sports group to develop rotator cuff tears was twice as high as for the no-sports group (95% confidence interval, 1.7–2.6; P<.001). Similar results were found for the neurological level of lesion (T2–7/<T7), where the estimated risk was about 2.3 times higher in patients with a high neurological level of lesion (T2–7) than in those with a low neurological level of lesion (<T7) (95% confidence interval, 1.82–3.04; P<.001).


      Overhead-sports activities have been identified as an additional risk factor, along with age and duration of wheelchair dependence, for developing rotator cuff disease in patients with paraplegia. A high frequency of sports activity shows physiological benefits as well as improves the psychological status and quality of life in patients with SCI. The dilemma is how to increase physical activity to gain physiological and psychological health benefits without further increasing overuse of the upper extremities, particularly the shoulder, in patients with paraplegia. The data from this study may be helpful in elucidating the etiology of rotator cuff tear in athletes with paraplegia and in counseling patients with SCI regarding shoulder and upper extremity activity level and provide support for developing preventive strategies.


      List of abbreviations:

      BMI (body mass index), RCT (rotator cuff tear), SCI (spinal cord injury)
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