INTRODUCTION: Shoulder stiffness is a frequent complication of surgical repair of rotator cuff tears. Post-operative stiffness negatively affects surgical outcomes leading to a substantial comorbidity and to the failure of surgical treatment. Also, a stiff shoulder could commonly be concomitant with an rotator cuff tear (RCT). SOURCES OF DATA: We performed a comprehensive search of CINAHL, Embase, Medline and the Cochrane Central Registry of Controlled Trials, from inception of the database to 31 July 2011. Sixteen articles published in peer-reviewed journals were included in this comprehensive review. AREAS OF CONTROVERSY: The management of shoulder stiffness is still controversial. The role of rehabilitation programs (standard versus early passive mobilization) after RCT repair on the development of stiffness is not clear, while the role of arthroscopic capsular release for post-operative stiffness is better defined, although a threshold of decreased the range of movement for which capsular release is advised has not been identified. AREAS OF AGREEMENT: Several factors have been identified to predispose the development of shoulder stiffness. There is also evidence in favor of surgical management of RCTs even when accompanied by shoulder stiffness, and there are strong evidences that arthroscopic capsular release is reliable and effective in managing shoulder stiffness. GROWING POINTS: The post-operative rehabilitation protocol remains controversial. We are still far from definitive guidelines for the management of pre- and post-operative stiffness, and prospective double-blinded randomized clinical trials are needed to obtain evidence allowing to establish a reliable and effective management plan for shoulder stiffness.
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