Subacromial smoothing and acromioplasty for rotator cuff disorders

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Subacromial smoothing and acromioplasty for rotator cuff disorders

Surgery Overview

Surgery may be used to treat a rotator cuff disorder if the injury is very severe or if non-surgical treatment has failed to improve shoulder strength and movement sufficiently. Subacromial smoothing involves shaving bone or removing growths on the upper point of the shoulder blade (acromion). It removes damaged tendon and bursa from the joint. The surgeon may also remove small amounts of bone from the underside of the acromion and the acromioclavicular joint (acromioplasty). The goal is to take away roughness while keeping as much of the normal supporting structures as possible. This surgery creates more room in the subacromial space so that the rotator cuff tendon is not pinched or irritated and can glide smoothly beneath the acromion.

Subacromial smoothing, acromioplasty, and rotator cuff repair may be done using arthroscopic surgery or open surgery.

  • Open-shoulder surgery involves making a larger incision in the shoulder, to open it and directly view the repair.
  • Arthroscopy uses a thin viewing scope called an arthroscope that is inserted into a joint through a small incision in the skin. Then the surgeon will remove loose fragments of tendon, bursa, and other debris from the shoulder (debridement). Other instruments are then arthroscopically inserted to shave the bone or remove growths. This type of surgery is usually done on an outpatient basis.

You may have general anesthesia during arthroscopy, or you may have a regional nerve block.

  • If a nerve block alone is done, you may be awake. You will not feel any pain, but you may feel a sensation of pulling or tugging during the procedure.
  • Regional nerve blocks are sometimes used in addition to general anesthesia to help manage pain after surgery.

What To Expect After Surgery

You may go home a few hours after waking up from anesthesia. A family member or friend should drive you home. In some cases, the doctor may suggest that you stay overnight for help with pain and for observation.

Discomfort after surgery may be relieved by:

  • Applying ice to the surgical site 3 times a day.
  • Taking pain medicines as prescribed.
  • Immobilizing and protecting your shoulder by wearing a sling as directed. Your doctor will advise you whether you need a sling after surgery. Some doctors do not recommend this, because the shoulder joint may become stiff.

With a doctor's approval, you may be able to return to light work within a few days after surgery even if you are using a sling.

Physiotherapy after surgery is crucial for a successful recovery. A typical rehabilitation schedule includes the following:

  • Range-of-motion exercises may start the day after subacromial smoothing surgery.
  • Strength training may begin a few weeks after surgery.

When normal shoulder strength and range of motion return, usually after about 6 to 8 weeks, you can gradually resume playing sports.

Why It Is Done

Smoothing may be done for people who:

  • Have severe pain and impaired shoulder function that has not responded to a few months of conservative treatment.
  • Are over 60 years old with severe tears and whose main problem is pain, not weakness.
  • Do not wish to have more extensive surgery to repair a rotator cuff tear.

In addition, if you have a rotator cuff tear, you may have arthroscopic smoothing before open surgery.

How Well It Works

Most people who have surgery to smooth the bones and create more space for the rotator cuff usually have less pain with shoulder movement.1


In addition to the general risks of surgery, such as blood loss or problems related to anesthesia, complications of subacromial smoothing surgery for rotator cuff disorders may include:

  • Persistent pain.
  • Stiffness.
  • Infection.
  • Nerve or blood vessel injury.

Subacromial smoothing does not always correct the rotator cuff problem. Things that may cause the surgery to fail include:

  • Stiffness or a frozen shoulder.
  • An incorrect diagnosis—the cause of the problem is not what was expected.
  • Fractures on the upper edge of the shoulder blade (acromion) caused by shaving off too much bone during surgery and weakening it.
  • Roughness that persists because the surgery doesn't smooth the acromion sufficiently.

What To Think About

Subacromial smoothing using arthroscopic surgery can usually improve shoulder function as well as open surgery can but without some of the drawbacks of open surgery. The benefits of needing only arthroscopic surgery for subacromial smoothing rather than open surgery include:

  • A shorter recovery time.
  • A shorter hospital stay.
  • Keeping the deltoid muscle attached, which aids rehabilitation.
  • The surgeon's ability to inspect and debride both surfaces of the rotator cuff, rather than just the outside.
  • Detecting other damage to the inside of the shoulder joint.

Complete the surgery information form (PDF) (What is a PDF document?) to help you prepare for this surgery.



  1. Beasley Vidal LS, et al. (2007). Shoulder injuries. In PJ McMahon, ed., Current Diagnosis and Treatment in Sports Medicine, pp. 118–145. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Other Works Consulted

  • Devinney DS, et al. (2005). Surgery of shoulder arthritis. In WJ Koopman, LW Moreland, eds., Arthritis and Allied Conditions, 15th ed., vol. 1, pp. 995–1015. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
  • Husni EM, Donohue JP (2005). Painful shoulder and reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome. In WJ Koopman, LW Moreland, eds., Arthritis and Allied Conditions, 15th ed., vol. 2, pp. 2133–2151. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
  • Lin KC, et al. (2010). Rotator cuff: 1. Impingement lesions in adult and adolescent athletes. In JC DeLee et al., eds., DeLee and Drez's Orthopaedic Sports Medicine, Principles and Practice, 3rd ed., vol. 1, pp. 986–1015. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier.
  • Speed C, Hazleman B (2005). Shoulder pain. Clinical Evidence (13): 1555–1571.


By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William M. Green, MD - Emergency Medicine
Primary Medical Reviewer Andrew Swan, MD, CCFP, FCFP - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Patrick J. McMahon, MD - Orthopedic Surgery
Last Revised June 7, 2010

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