SLAP tear surgery is a procedure used to repair injured shoulder cartilage. It involves making small incisions around the shoulder joint and using specialized instruments to repair or reconstruct the torn labrum.

A labrum tear is an injury to the soft cartilage that lines the shoulder joint. The labrum helps keep the ball of the joint in place, and when it tears, it can destabilize your shoulder. It can also be painful.

Doctors usually recommend having SLAP tear surgery when less invasive treatments, such as rest, physical therapy, and medications, don’t work for you or if the injury is severe.

Let’s explore its effectiveness, risks, and what to expect with the procedure.

There are several types of SLAP tear surgery, which surgeons typically perform as an arthroscopy, a minimally invasive procedure that uses a small camera to view and repair any unstable portions of the shoulder joint. The different types include:

  • Debridement: This procedure involves shaving away portions of the torn labrum.
  • Repair: This procedure involves reattaching the labrum to the shoulder joint.
  • Biceps tenodesis or tenotomy: This procedure involves detaching and then reinserting the biceps tendon from the shoulder labrum. Surgeons can also perform this with arthroscopy.

While SLAP tear surgery is a routine procedure, effectiveness depends on the type of injury and your age.

According to a 2020 study involving more than 25,000 people, 11.5% of people who had a SLAP repair needed another shoulder surgery in the following 3 years.

A 2017 research review mentioned a success rate of around 70–95% for open and arthroscopic repair surgeries. A 2016 study showed a debridement success rate of up to 89%.

The most common risks associated with SLAP tear surgery include:

Leading up to SLAP tear repair, your doctor may have you take a physical exam to assess your range of motion and see whether there’s instability in your shoulder joints. Additionally, they may order imaging tests like X-rays or MRI scans to assess the injury.

Before SLAP tear surgery

In the days leading up to the procedure, you may:

  • stop taking certain medications
  • stock up on supplies like ice packs and pain relievers
  • arrange for someone to take you home after the procedure

During the procedure

Depending on the severity of the tear, a surgeon may perform one of three main types of surgeries: Arthroscopy, open repair, or biceps tenodesis.

Arthroscopic SLAP repair

This surgery involves tiny incisions that allow the surgeon to use an arthroscope (a small camera), instruments, and implants. The procedure involves suturing or reattaching the torn labrum back to its original position.

The surgical team may:

  • clean out debris from inside the joint
  • reattach torn tissue together
  • trim away frayed edges of tissue
  • release tight ligaments or tendons
  • insert anchors into the bone to hold sutures in place

Open SLAP repair

This surgery requires a larger incision than arthroscopic SLAP repair. Doctors use it for more extensive injuries. It involves repairing or reattaching torn tissue and trimming away strained edges of tissue.

The surgical team may:

  • make an incision over your shoulder joint
  • reposition your shoulder joint to access your labrum
  • repair or reattach torn tissue
  • trim away strained or weakened edges of tissue

Biceps tenodesis

This involves cutting through part of your bicep tendon near your shoulder and then reattaching it further down near your elbow. This helps reduce pain associated with a SLAP tear by taking tension off your labrum so it can heal properly.

After the procedure

Following your surgeon’s instructions for postoperative care and rehabilitation exercises is crucial.

Recovery generally includes

  • pain relief medications for pain, discomfort, or soreness in the shoulder area
  • physical therapy to regain your strength and range of motion
  • a return to your usual activities within weeks or months, depending on the severity of your injury

A great way to prepare for surgery is to discuss what to expect with your surgeon.

List the medications and supplements you take and previous surgeries or known allergies. On the day of surgery, wear comfortable clothing without jewelry or metal objects. You may also need to remove contact lenses and dentures.

Ask your doctor whether you need to fast and whether you can drink water or other liquids before the procedure.

The initial recovery period lasts 2–6 weeks. During this time, you’ll need to keep your shoulder immobilized and take medications the way your doctor prescribes them.

After the initial swelling and pain subside, physical therapy is necessary to regain strength and range of motion in the shoulder joint. This may involve stretches and exercises tailored to your individual needs and progress.

After 6–10 weeks, your physical therapist may introduce shoulder muscles and rotator cuff strengthening exercises. Your doctor will advise when it’s safe to resume sports activities, which could be months after surgery.

SLAP tear surgery can be the most common and effective labrum repair. But you and your doctor can consider some alternative treatments, depending on the severity of the injury. These include:

  • physical therapy
  • corticosteroid injections to reduce inflammation and act as a temporary pain relief
  • a debridement, which doctors may not consider a SLAP tear surgery

SLAP tear surgery is an elective procedure that insurance or government programs may not cover. But some insurers may cover part or all of the cost if they deem it medically necessary. If you can’t afford to pay in full, consider looking into hospital payment plans or financial assistance from nonprofit organizations.

According to a 2021 study, the procedure cost can vary from about $15,000–$40,000, depending on the procedure type and other factors.

Here are some frequently asked questions about SLAP tear surgery.

Is SLAP tear surgery worth it?

SLAP tear surgery can help repair a shoulder cartilage injury and provide stability to the shoulder joint. People who get the procedure may experience an increased range of motion and decreased shoulder pain.

How long does a SLAP tear surgery take?

SLAP tear surgery typically takes a couple of hours.

SLAP tear surgery helps repair the shoulder joint to keep it stable. You may need it if you have a serious or persistent injury that doesn’t respond to therapy or other treatment. It comes with risks and complications. You may need a follow-up procedure.