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What is a SLAP Tear, and How is It Treated?

Medically Reviewed by Ryan T. Beck, MD | August 2, 2022

A tear in any cartilage may cause pain and limit mobility. But tearing cartilage in your shoulder potentially limits the ability to use your arm as well as any participation in throwing sports or other overhead activities. One type of this injury is called a SLAP tear, and it makes up 4% to 8% of shoulder injuries. 

What is a SLAP tear?

A SLAP (Superior Labrum, Anterior to Posterior) tear happens to your glenoid labrum, the cartilage attached to the rim of your shoulder socket. The labrum helps keep your ball joint in place and connects your shoulder blade socket to one of your bicep tendons. And if it tears, the ball joint loses its cushion and the shoulder blade socket and tendon disconnect. This condition will cause shoulder pain and instability.  

SLAP tears can occur after shoulder injuries or simply result from aging. And they are especially common in throwing athletes. 

What are the symptoms?

You may have a SLAP tear if you experience…

  1. A dull, persistent ache or sharp pain deep in your shoulder.
  2. A feeling that your shoulder could detach from your shoulder blade. 
  3. Pops and grinding when you move your arm. 
  4. Shoulder pain when you raise your arm, reach overhead, or throw. 

How are SLAP tears treated?

Your doctor could treat a SLAP tear with rest, physical therapy, anti-inflammatory drugs, cortisone shots, and/or surgery. The treatment depends on the injury’s type and severity. 

What should a patient know about SLAP tear surgery?

Your doctor will decide what type of surgery to perform based on your age and the kind of tear you have. During the procedure, they will either trim the biceps tendon from your labrum or reattach it. Reattachment happens at the top of the shoulder socket in young patients and farther down the arm in patients older than 25. 

Your medical team can do perform this procedure either through a large incision on the front of your shoulder or arthroscopic surgery, which features a small camera and special tools. Arthroscopy involves a number of smaller incisions. And at the Orthopaedic Institute of Western Kentucky, we perform both of these surgical methods.

Recovery time depends on the severity of your SLAP tear. It can take eight to 12 weeks for your shoulder to fully heal and regain strength. You must be very careful not to reinjure your shoulder during that time, so you’ll have to return to normal activities gradually. Talk to your doctor about what you can and can’t do as your shoulder heals. 

If you have any questions about SLAP tears or shoulder surgery, our experts are happy to help. Call us at (270) 442-9461.