Is exercise therapy the right treatment for rotator cuff-related shoulder pain: Uncertainties, theory, and practice

Jared K Powell*, Jeremy Lewis, Ben Schram, Wayne Hing

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articleResearchpeer-review

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BACKGROUND: Exercise therapy is a popular non-surgical treatment to help manage individuals with rotator cuff-related shoulder pain (RCRSP) and is recommended in all clinical practice guidelines. Due to modest effect sizes, low quality evidence, uncertainty relating to efficacy, and mechanism(s) of benefit, exercise as a therapeutic intervention has been the subject of increasing scrutiny.

AIMS: The aim of this critical review is to lay out where the purported uncertainties of exercise for RCRSP exist by exploring the relevant quantitative and qualitative literature. We conclude by offering theoretical and practical considerations to help reduce the uncertainty of delivering exercise therapy in a clinical environment.

RESULTS AND DISCUSSION: Uncertainty underpins much of the theory and practice of delivering exercise therapy for individuals with RCRSP. Nonetheless, exercise is an often-valued treatment by individuals with RCRSP, when provided within an appropriate clinical context. We encourage clinicians to use a shared decision-making paradigm and embrace a pluralistic model when prescribing therapeutic exercise. This may take the form of using exercise experiments to trial different exercise approaches, adjusting, and adapting the exercise type, load, and context based on the individual's symptom irritability, preferences, and goals.

CONCLUSION: We contend that providing exercise therapy should remain a principal treatment option for helping individuals with RCRSP. Limitations notwithstanding, exercise therapy is relatively low cost, accessible, and often valued by individuals with RCRSP. The uncertainty surrounding exercise therapy requires ongoing research and emphasis could be directed towards investigating causal mechanisms to better understand how exercise may benefit an individual with RCRSP.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere1879
Pages (from-to)1-12
Number of pages12
JournalMusculoskeletal Care
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2024


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