Jon Feliciano’s Rotator Cuff Repair

How did Feliciano manage to play all season with a torn rotator cuff?

The injuries continue to pile up! The latest injury comes Wednesday afternoon when a tweet dropped from OG Jon Feliciano. The tweet shows him in a recovery room with a brace on his left arm with bulky padding on the shoulder. Considering it was at a lower angle, it was initially hard to determine if there were other telltale signs that could be observed signifying the specific procedure. 

This surgery is another in a line with DT Ed Oliver Tuesday with his core muscle surgery & Wednesday morning’s tweet of OT Cody Ford with a right shoulder surgeryShortly after the Feliciano tweet, Matt Parrino from NY Upstate reported that Feliciano had a rotator cuff repair Wednesday & that the original injury occurred during the Blue & Red scrimmage on August 2nd.

I noted back in August that he suffered an injury during the scrimmage after I attended, but the actual injury was unable to be observed due to the vantage point of the stadium & the multitude of activity going on at the time. What wasn’t known at the time was that Feliciano suffered a rotator cuff tear to his left shoulder that he managed to play for  5 months. 

To understand why he was able to play that length of time, the anatomy & function of the rotator cuff must be understood. The rotator cuff is made up of 4 muscles that include the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, & subscapularis. These muscles assist in shoulder abduction, internal & external rotation. These motions are vital for a variety of activities that we perform daily from washing hair, putting a shirt on, throwing objects, reaching behind the back, & general overhead activities. The rotator cuff also helps keep the humeral head depressed and against the labrum so that it can create enough space within the joint for the humerus to move & not ram into the acromion during elevation. There are other muscles that assist with all these functions, but these are primary movers for the above-mentioned functions. 

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Credit: Physio-pedia.com

We tend to hear more about rotator cuff injuries in baseball but they can & do occur in football at a variety of positions. The mechanism for injury to the rotator cuff can happen in a number of ways. It can occur as a result of landing on your arm outstretched, jamming the head of the humerus into the scapula. It can occur with a fall directly onto the shoulder area, throwing an object either with increased frequency or if the object is too heavy. It can also occur from an overload of the area such as a sudden pull on the area. Finally, it can occur over a period of time with impingement due to weakness in the area with altered biomechanics leading to a wearing down on the tendon insertion.  

There are two types of rotator cuff tears that can affect any of the muscles in the cuff area: Partial-thickness and full-thickness. Based on the names, the partial-thickness is a partial tear to the tendon that can be small & can even heal on its own at times. Full-thickness is when the tendon tears completely through & there is a significant loss of function noted in the area. Any of the muscles in the rotator cuff can tear but the supraspinatus is the most commonly torn muscle. It is anchored at the top of the humerus head & is more likely to bear the brunt of an injury or become worn down. 

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Credit: physioworkshsv.com

There are also varying grades of partial vs full-thickness tears which further indicate the severity as seen above. The tear is measured in both size & depth. So it’s possible that there could be a big superficial tear that could be managed conservatively or there could be a tear that is deep that requires surgery as seen below. Most surgeries are indicated for tears medium & above.

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Credit: Google Images

Feliciano likely suffered a partial thickness tear to at least the supraspinatus & possibly others as the rotator cuff covers the humeral head like a blanket. The injury could have started out as a partial thickness tear, potentially progressing towards closer to a full-thickness tear as the season wore on. The other possibility is that the partial-thickness tear just never got better, requiring surgery.

I don’t believe that he initially had a full-thickness tear as he would have missed some time due to profound weakness in the area and positive signs of several special tests. In the clinical setting, a full-thickness tear is quite apparent & even the toughest of people have difficulty moving the shoulder. If his shoulder were to be assessed during the season, there would have likely been a painful arc noted in the picture below. This is due to the activation of the rotator cuff muscles assisting in elevation of the humerus during the range of motion from 60-120 degrees

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Credit: pivotalphysio.com

There was likely pain during every movement that Feliciano encountered throughout the season due to this tear. Between rehab, strengthening of the surrounding muscles & medications, he was still able to suit up for every game & at times play center. Thankfully, he didn’t have any issues with snapping the ball due to being right-handed. 

Feliciano’s glaring weakness would have been forcing to move his arm in abduction and external rotation, both of which would have been more difficult as a tackle, trying to keep the defensive end from bending around the edge. Thankfully, he was able to play inside & keep his arms closer to his body, taking stress off the cuff. Despite the rotator cuff not directly assisting with shoulder flexion, he still would have likely had pain with a general elevation of the arm due to the imbalance of the rotator cuff due to the injury. This could cause impingement where the rotator cuff gets pinched between the acromion & greater trochanter due to decreased space during shoulder elevation.

It will be curious to see if he did get beat more often on the left side when the pocket broke down & he was forced to use that shoulder more. It would also be interesting to note if Feliciano’s punching ability when engaging with his block was decreased due to not being able to put as much power through the left.

Either way, to play through this injury isn’t unprecedented in the NFL, but it is difficult. Cam Newton, Drew Brees, Kawaan Short, Alshon Jeffery & Johnathan Abram are just some of the examples that have torn their rotator cuffs & either tried to play through it or had their seasons end as a result. However, most of the names on this list continued to have incredibly productive careers, indicating that the injury alone isn’t a game-changer. 

To add insult to injury, the rehab for a torn rotator cuff isn’t fun either. It’s roughly a 4-6 month recovery & in some cases, take up to a year with severe tears. This is a tough surgery due to the variety of movements of the shoulder. In addition, the area where the rotator cuff attaches to the humerus contains a poor blood supply which means that it does not receive the needed nutrients to heal as quickly as other parts of the body. Reports indicate that Feliciano will take between 4-6 months which further supports the partial thickness tear that I had mentioned earlier.

The surgery is typically done arthroscopically unless there is a massive tear & they need to open up the shoulder to fully address the issue. Once inside, the tear can be further assessed, cleaned out & repaired. The repair is done by placing anchors that reconnect the tendon back to the bone to allow for proper healing of the area. Based on the severity of the tear will determine how many suture anchors are required.

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Credit: Physio-pedia.com

Rehab protocols dictating the specifics of the timeline for rehab can be accessed here & here, but to simplify it, it is tedious having worked on a number of these during my career. The first 4-6 weeks are spent in a sling with PROM initiated to work on the motion but avoiding any strengthening directly to the shoulder area. Motion is slowly progressed to stretch the tissue but not place stress on the healing area with range of motion limitations set by the doctor.

Once the patient has been cleared to begin strengthening, isometrics are initiated which is when the muscle tensed up but is not actively moving, like pushing with all your might against a wall. As strengthening progresses, higher-level activities are incorporated to increase stability in the joint. The rotator cuff has to improve with strength, but the surrounding muscles also have to strengthen in order to help move the scapula up and out of the way in order to allow the humerus to elevate. 

Eventually, the muscles are all moving properly with scapulohumeral rhythm, there is full ROM/strength and no pain, this allows the ability to return to sport-specific strengthening & activity. Rotator cuff repairs do have overall good outcomes, up to 95%, but they need a lot of patience to get there. Fortunately, delaying surgery does not appear to have negative outcomes, hence why Feliciano likely chose to play the season with the injury.

Risks for re-tear are as high as 26% in the literature, but is relatively lower in younger patients as the quality of the tissue is improved compared to older patients with more chronic tears. Furthermore, there is a correlation that for every 1 cm the initial tear increases in size, the risk to re-tear increases two-fold.

As a PT, these repairs are rewarding to observe the improvement, but there is a distinct process to them. There may be areas where a patient progresses faster & can shave some time off the overall recovery time, but you can’t speed up the biology & healing portion of the surgery. These can be successful surgeries, but they just require a lot of time & patience in order to maximize the results. 

Feliciano will be around during OTA’s but expected to be limited. He should be able to perform cardio activities & perform non-contact drills as long as he’s cleared by the MD, which is very possible. There is a chance he would be able to perform at mandatory minicamp in June during Phase 3 of the OTA’s but may be held out as a precaution as he is a veteran. Barring any setbacks, he should have no concerns going into training camp for 2020.

This sort of injury is just the reality of the game of football & is a look into how tough these guys really are when it comes to suiting up every week. The only benefit to having an early exit to the playoffs is that these injuries can get addressed sooner. However, I believe most, if not all of the players in that Bills locker room would go through hell if it meant hoisting that Lombardi trophy in February. With how this team is built, the chances for that increase daily. 

Top Photo Credit:

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