Shoulder SLAP Tear
What is a shoulder SLAP tear?
A SLAP tear is a specific kind of injury to your shoulder.
To help make your shoulder more stable, there is a ring of firm tissue, called the labrum, around your shoulder socket. The labrum (say "LAY-brum") helps keep your arm bone in the shoulder socket.
SLAP stands for "superior labrum, anterior to posterior"—in other words, "the top part of the labrum, from the front to the back." It refers to the part of the labrum that is injured, or torn, in a SLAP injury.
What causes it?
A shoulder SLAP tear is when the labrum frays or tears because of an injury. You may get a SLAP tear if you:
- Fall on your outstretched arm.
- Fall on your shoulder.
- Brace yourself with your outstretched arm in a car accident.
- Lift heavy objects repeatedly or too suddenly.
- Do a lot of overhead activities, such as throwing a baseball.
This injury was first identified in the 1980s in athletes, like baseball players, whose sport requires them to do a lot of overhead throwing.
Many people with SLAP tears also have other shoulder injuries, such as a tear in the rotator cuff.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of a SLAP tear may include:
- Popping, clicking, or catching in the shoulder.
- Pain when you move your arm over your head or throw a ball.
- The feeling that your shoulder is weak or not stable.
- Aching pain. You may have a hard time describing this pain. Or you may not be able to show your doctor exactly where it is.
How is it diagnosed?
A SLAP tear can be hard to identify, because there are so many other things that can cause shoulder pain and because SLAP tears are not common. Ways to diagnose a SLAP tear include:
- A series of tests in which your doctor moves your shoulder joint around to see which movements are causing your pain.
- MRI. A special dye is injected into your shoulder before you have an MRI scan. When a dye is used, the test is called an MRI arthrogram.
- Arthroscopic surgery. This is the only sure way to know whether you have a SLAP tear. Your doctor will make small cuts, called incisions, in your shoulder. Then the doctor can look at the inside of your joint by inserting a tiny camera attached to a thin tube. The doctor may be able to repair the tear at the same time.
How is a shoulder SLAP tear treated?
The first step in treatment is to see whether pain medicine and rehabilitation (rehab) can take care of the problem.
NSAIDs, which are anti-inflammatory medicines, may help the pain. NSAIDs are available over the counter or by prescription. Ibuprofen (such as Advil or Motrin) and naproxen (such as Aleve) are commonly used NSAIDs.
You can also try using heat or ice on your shoulder for about 15 to 20 minutes at a time. If your shoulder is very painful, try using a sling for a few days to support your arm.
Rehab may include exercises to strengthen the rotator cuff muscles and to gently stretch the back of the shoulder. Your doctor or therapist will teach you to do the exercises and avoid pain, then the exercise program may be done at home.
For many people, surgery is the only thing that helps. With arthroscopic surgery, the doctor can get a close look at the injury and also do some repairs at the same time.
Current as of: March 9, 2022
Author: Healthwise Staff
William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Patrick J. McMahon MD - Orthopedic Surgery