Diagnostic Labels for Rotator Cuff Disease Can Increase People's Perceived Need for Shoulder Surgery: An Online Randomized Controlled Trial

Joshua R. Zadro, Mary O'Keeffe, Giovanni E. Ferreira, Romi Haas, Ian A. Harris, Rachelle Buchbinder, Christopher G. Maher

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17 Citations (Scopus)


OBJECTIVE: To investigate whether different labels for rotator cuff disease influence people's perceived need for surgery. DESIGN: Randomized controlled experiment. METHODS: Participants with and without shoulder pain read a vignette describing a patient with rotator cuff disease and were randomized to 1 of 6 terms describing rotator cuff disease: subacromial impingement syndrome, rotator cuff tear, bursitis, rotator cuff-related shoulder pain, shoulder sprain, and episode of shoulder pain. Perceived need for shoulder surgery was the primary outcome. Secondary outcomes included perceived need for imaging, an injection, a second opinion, and to see a specialist; perceived seriousness of the condition; recovery expectations; and perceived impact on work attendance. Using a Bonferroni correction (significance, P<.003), adjusted between-group mean differences and 99.67% confidence intervals (CIs) were obtained using a 1-way analysis of covariance. RESULTS: One thousand three hundred eight (80% of 1626) responses were analyzed. Participants' mean ± SD age was 40.3 ± 16.0 years, and 59% were women. Mean perceived need for surgery (0-10 scale) was low and slightly higher among those assigned to the rotator cuff tear label compared to the bursitis label (2.6 versus 2.1; adjusted mean difference, 0.7; 99.67% CI: 0.0, 1.4). Mean perceived need for imaging (0-10) was moderate and slightly higher among those assigned to the rotator cuff tear (4.7 versus 3.7; adjusted mean difference, 1.0; 99.67% CI: 0.2, 1.9) and subacromial impingement syndrome labels (4.7 versus 3.7; adjusted mean difference, 1.0; 99.7% CI: 0.1, 1.9) compared to the bursitis label. CONCLUSION: There were small differences in the perceived need for surgery and imaging between some labels, which could be important at the population level. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther 2021;51(8):401-411. Epub 31 Mar 2021. doi:10.2519/jospt.2021.10375.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)401-411
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2021


  • bursitis
  • labeling
  • rotator cuff
  • shoulder pain
  • subacromial impingement

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