The crucial rotator cuff examined in fine detail

The rotator cuff is a crucial joint in the shoulder that is often injured. Picture: Shutterstock.

The rotator cuff is a crucial joint in the shoulder that is often injured. Picture: Shutterstock.

The rotator cuff is made up of muscles and tendons that connect and operate your shoulder, it is a crucial joint in the body.

It's also prone to damage, with around 30 per cent of people over 60, and 60 per cent of those over 80, having a rotator cuff tear.

Surgery to repair these tears is often unsuccessful, as the connection between tendon and bone is still poorly understood.

That may be about to change, with a group of US researchers using a new imaging technique to learn more about the biomechanics of the rotator cuff.

Better repairs

They're hoping their discoveries will lead to better repair processes.

The researchers, who have published their findings in Science Advances, examined the shoulders of 275 mice using an X-ray imaging technique called micro computed tomography (or microCT).

They combined this with electron microscopy, mechanical testing of the mouse shoulders and numerical modelling to understand the toughness of the rotator cuff.

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"When [lead author] Mikhail Golman first showed us these images, we realised that much of the old picture of how tendon and bone interact had to be redrawn," said co-author Professor Guy Genin, a mechanical engineer at Washington University in St Louis, US.

"The fibre system there seems like fibres in a rope, and we can understand much about where the toughness comes from by understanding how these fibres break sequentially when they are next to the bone.

"It's a new way of thinking about how to attach different materials."

The toughness of the rotator cuff - the amount of energy required to break it - was related to these fibres, which connect tendon and bone.

"There's actually a trade-off between strength and toughness with these fibre systems," said Genin.

"If you reduce the overall strength by allowing some of the fibres to break, you can actually make the structure tougher because the amount of energy absorbed increases."

Professor Guy Genin

Injury patterns

Co-author Stavros Thomopoulos, professor of orthopaedic surgery at Columbia University, US, said that the researchers' goal was to understand where the healthy rotator cuff gets its toughness and strength and under what conditions it ruptures.

"We found that the toughness of the rotator cuff varies as a function of shoulder position, helping to explain differences in the injury patterns seen in patients," Thomopoulos said.

Genin said that the research provided a new look at this frequently injured region, and presented new thinking about how to attach the two different materials.

"This is not just important for surgeries, but for all kinds of engineering failures that occur when you connect a material to something with a different architecture," he said.

"By merging the architectural paradigms across the materials and enabling the distributed failure of the elements that come together, you can dramatically increase toughness."

  • This article is published in partnership with Cosmos Magazine. Cosmos is produced by The Royal Institution of Australia to inspire curiosity in science and make it accessible to everyone.

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This story Researchers look to new repair processes for shoulder joint first appeared on The Canberra Times.