Superior Labrum Lesions Clinical Presentation

Updated: Nov 24, 2021
  • Author: Riley J Williams, III, MD; Chief Editor: Craig C Young, MD  more...
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The initial evaluation of an individual with a suspected SLAP lesion should include a thorough review of the patient's activities, history of previous shoulder injuries, subsequent interventions, and aggravating factors. The majority of SLAP lesions occur in conjunction with other shoulder disorders, making the diagnosis difficult to establish.

Nonspecific shoulder pain with overhead or cross-body activities is the most common presenting symptom of patients with SLAP lesions. Reports of popping, clicking, or catching at the shoulder joint are common. Patients may describe a deep, vague pain within the shoulder joint in association with weakness or stiffness. Additionally, symptoms of instability may be present if the tear extends into the anterior ligament and labrum, resulting in a Bankart lesion.

The patient's history may reveal a traction injury or a direct blow to the shoulder area proper. A fall onto an outstretched arm may also cause a SLAP lesion. Compression (direct blow) injuries are most often traumatic in nature and can be sustained during a fall onto the affected extremity. Overhead throwing athletes may also be prone to the development of SLAP lesions because of the repetitive traction forces of the throwing motion. In many of these cases, no antecedent injury or activity is reported.


Physical Examination

Patients suspected of having a labral tear or SLAP lesion should undergo a thorough physical examination of the cervical spine, shoulder girdle, and upper extremity.

The physical examination should assess range of motion (ROM), glenohumeral stability, muscular strength, and neurologic function. Unfortunately, no single physical sign or test is specific for the detection of a SLAP lesion, and a diagnosis based solely upon the patient's history and the physical examination findings remains difficult. Some studies have advocated certain maneuvers that, when considered with other diagnostic modalities (eg, history, imaging), may be highly suggestive of labral pathology.

Note that commonly performed diagnostic maneuvers often elicit positive findings in patients with superior labral tears; thus, attention to detail is necessary when documenting physical findings. Associated lesions (eg, rotator cuff tears, instability) may produce confusing signs during the physical examination; thus, the correlation of all findings with information from the history and imaging studies is recommended.

The Speed biceps tension test (also Speed's test, biceps tendon test) may be useful in detecting SLAP lesions. This test is performed with the patient's forearm in maximal supination and the elbow extended. Then, the examiner resists active glenohumeral flexion, which may result in pain in the patient when the biceps attachment site is injured or inflamed.

Field and Savoie described the compression rotation test wherein the patient is placed in a lateral position and the affected arm is held in 90° of abduction. [19]  Pain is noted with internal and external rotation of the arm.

The O'Brien active compression test (also O'Brien sign, active compression test) is often utilized to detect labral pathology. [20]  This maneuver is performed with the examiner standing behind the patient. The patient stands upright with the affected arm flexed 90° and adducted 15° medial to the sagittal plane of the body. With the arm internally rotated (thumb down), the examiner places a downward force on the arm. Pain is localized to the shoulder joint or acromioclavicular (AC) joint. The test is then repeated with the forearm in maximal supination. A positive test result is recorded when pain is decreased by the second maneuver. Superficial pain is correlated with AC joint pathology, whereas a deep pain or click is correlated with labral abnormalities in 94% of the patients studied. [20]

Kibler described the anterior slide test to help diagnose anterior SLAP lesions. The patient is instructed to place both hands on the hips. [21]  The examiner stabilizes the scapula of the affected side with one hand over the acromion. The other hand is used to axially load the humerus in the anterior and superior direction. Pain with this motion is considered to be a positive result for an anterior-based SLAP lesion.

Kim et al (2003) described the biceps load test II. [4]  With the patient supine, the affected arm is flexed to 120° and maximally externally rotated, with the elbow at 90° of flexion. If pain is elicited with resisted elbow flexion, the test finding is positive. The authors stated a sensitivity of 89.7% and specificity of 96.9% in detecting SLAP lesions.

In a study by Kim et al (2007), the authors described the passive compression test to assess for SLAP lesions. [22]  The patient is asked to lie down in a lateral position with the affected shoulder up and the physician standing behind the patient. The physician stabilizes the patient’s affected shoulder by holding the AC joint and controls the patient’s elbow with the other hand. The examiner rotates the patient’s shoulder externally with 30° of abduction and then pushes the arm proximally while extending the arm, which results in passive compression of the superior labrum onto the glenoid. The test finding is considered positive if pain or a painful click is elicited in the glenohumeral joint. The sensitivity of this test was reported to be 81.8%, and the specificity was 85.7%.

It should be noted that patients may also demonstrate a positive Neer (pain with passive forward elevation of the affected arm) or Hawkins sign (pain with passive internal rotation of the affected arm at 90° of flexion) in the presence of superior labral pathology.

Parentis et al completed a prospective study aimed at determining the most effective provocative maneuver with which to diagnose type I and II SLAP lesions. [23]  The 2 most sensitive tests for type II SLAP lesions were found to be the active compression (65.2%) and Hawkins test (65.2%). None of the sensitive tests was highly specific for type I or type II lesions.

Swaringen et al reported that electromyographic analysis of physical examination tests for type II SLAP lesions demonstrated that the active compression test and biceps tension test had significantly higher electromyographic signals relative to other tests, and consequently, maneuvers which maximize muscle activation transmitted through the LHB may be the best to identify type II SLAP lesions. [24]