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YOUR HEALTH: Better healing for rotator cuff repairs

Using a balloon to help those with irreparable rotator cuff tears find relief

CHICAGO — Every year, almost two million people go to their doctor for a rotator cuff problem. 

A torn rotator cuff can limit a person's ability to perform everyday tasks and can cause them pain. 

And with age comes a greater risk of having an irreparable rotator cuff tear.

69-year old Cathi Mintautas, who calls herself the bionic woman, knows that all too well.

"I've had four rotator cuff surgeries. I had four knee operations. One knee replacement and two hip replacements." 

Along with two carpal tunnel surgeries and one ankle surgery. 

When she started feeling symptoms of a re-tear in her left shoulder, she knew something had to be done.

"Significant amount of pain, aches, sleepless nights and I was only able to move my arm up a certain amount."

A rotator cuff tear is common among adults.

This injury can be caused by progressive degeneration and wear and tear, or a substantial injury to the shoulder. 

Age, family history and construction jobs can be risk factors.  

"In older patients what we find is as the tendon tears start to get larger and the tendon starts to retract, and the blood quality starts to deteriorate simply by the aging process, some of these tears cannot be repaired," explained Dr. Nikhil Verma of Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush Medical Center in Chicago.

 That's why Dr. Verma came up with a different solution.

"Rather than repairing the tendon, what we actually do is put a small spacer that sits between the top bone, our humerus, which is the top of our shoulder, and the top of our shoulder blade."

Filling in the hole left by the tear and eliminating the need for full surgery. 

It allows for less pain, quicker recovery and the ability to get back to normal activities sooner.

"It was less painful," said Cathy, "and I didn't have to take as many pain medications."

Four years after the procedure, her rotator cuff still keeps her in the swing of things. 

Compared to a tear repair where the recovery is six to eight months, the recovery period for the balloon spacer is about 10 weeks. 

Other new technology 

Duke University has begun to offer a new surgical technique called 'Superior Capsule Reconstruction' to repair damaged rotator cuffs. 

This technique inserts a human tissue graft, attaching one end to the upper-arm bone and the other to the shoulder socket. 

This will not replace your rotator cuff tendon but will perform the same function which is keeping the ball of the arm bone centered in your shoulder socket and help raise your arm. 

This surgery can be performed arthroscopically by inserting a camera and surgical instruments through small incisions that are about the width of a finger. 

The procedure is done under regional anesthesia and combined with sedation. 

Most patients go home the same day after surgery.

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.