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How to Understand Your Shoulder MRI Terms

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Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is a critical diagnostic tool used to assess shoulder injuries and conditions. However, the technical jargon in MRI reports can be confusing. This article aims to clarify common shoulder MRI terms, helping you better understand your report and communicate effectively with your healthcare provider.

Introduction to Shoulder MRI Reports

MRI is a non-invasive imaging technique that uses magnetic fields and radio waves to create detailed images of the shoulder's soft tissues and bones. These images are analyzed by radiologists, who then compile their findings into a report. Understanding the terminology used in these reports is crucial for grasping the results and their implications.

Common Terms in Shoulder MRI Reports

Anatomical Terms

Rotator Cuff: A group of muscles and tendons that stabilize the shoulder joint and allow for a wide range of motion.

Glenoid: The socket part of the shoulder blade that forms the ball-and-socket joint with the humeral head.

Labrum: A ring of cartilage that surrounds the glenoid, providing stability to the shoulder joint.

Bursa: Small fluid-filled sacs that reduce friction between the bones, tendons, and muscles around the shoulder joint.

Acromion: A bony projection on the scapula (shoulder blade) that forms the highest point of the shoulder.

Descriptive Terms

Tendon Tear: A tear in any of the shoulder tendons, commonly occurring in the rotator cuff. Tears can be partial or complete.

Tendinosis: Chronic degeneration of a tendon without inflammation, often due to overuse or aging.

Tendinitis: Inflammation of a tendon, typically causing pain and tenderness around the joint.

Bursitis: Inflammation of the bursa, often resulting in pain and swelling in the shoulder.

Impingement: Occurs when the tendons or bursa in the shoulder are compressed by the bones, leading to pain and restricted movement.

Specific Conditions

Rotator Cuff Tear: A common injury where one or more of the rotator cuff tendons are torn. The report may describe the size, location, and severity of the tear.

Labral Tear: A tear in the labrum, often associated with shoulder instability or dislocation. The report may specify if the tear is a SLAP (superior labrum from anterior to posterior) tear.

Arthritis: Degeneration of the joint cartilage, leading to pain and stiffness. The MRI report may describe the extent of cartilage loss and any associated bone changes.

Adhesive Capsulitis (Frozen Shoulder): A condition characterized by stiffness and pain in the shoulder joint, often described by thickening and contraction of the joint capsule.

Measurement Terms

Partial-Thickness Tear: A tear that does not extend through the entire thickness of the tendon.

Full-Thickness Tear: A tear that goes completely through the tendon, often requiring more intensive treatment.

Tendon Retraction: The extent to which a torn tendon has pulled back from its original attachment site.

Effusion: Excess fluid in the shoulder joint, indicating inflammation or injury.

Detailed Explanation of Terms in Shoulder MRI Reports

Rotator Cuff Tear

A rotator cuff tear involves a tear in one or more of the four tendons that stabilize the shoulder joint. The MRI report will detail whether the tear is partial or full-thickness, its size, and the tendon's retraction level. These details help determine the severity of the injury and guide treatment decisions.

Tendinosis and Tendinitis

Tendinosis and tendinitis refer to different conditions affecting the tendons. Tendinosis is a chronic condition characterized by tendon degeneration, while tendinitis involves acute inflammation. The MRI report will describe the affected tendons and the extent of the damage or inflammation.

Labral Tear

A labral tear can cause significant pain and instability in the shoulder. The MRI report may specify the type of tear, such as a SLAP tear, which involves the upper part of the labrum where the biceps tendon attaches. Understanding the type and location of the tear is crucial for determining the appropriate treatment.


Bursitis is inflammation of the bursa, typically resulting in pain and swelling. The MRI report will indicate the presence and severity of bursitis, often describing fluid accumulation in the bursa.


Impingement syndrome occurs when the rotator cuff tendons or bursa are compressed by the bones of the shoulder. This condition can cause pain and limit movement. The MRI report will detail the structures involved and the degree of impingement.


Arthritis in the shoulder involves the degeneration of joint cartilage, leading to pain and stiffness. The MRI report will describe the extent of cartilage loss, the presence of bone spurs, and any changes in the bone structure.

Adhesive Capsulitis (Frozen Shoulder)

Adhesive capsulitis, or frozen shoulder, is characterized by thickening and contraction of the joint capsule, leading to restricted movement and pain. The MRI report will detail these changes, providing insights into the severity of the condition.

Measurement Terms

Partial-Thickness Tear and Full-Thickness Tear are terms used to describe the severity of tendon tears. A partial-thickness tear does not go through the entire tendon, while a full-thickness tear extends completely through it. These distinctions are important for determining the appropriate treatment approach.

Tendon Retraction refers to how far a torn tendon has pulled back from its attachment point. High levels of retraction can complicate surgical repair and influence the treatment plan.

Effusion indicates the presence of excess fluid in the joint, often a sign of inflammation or injury. The MRI report will describe the amount and location of the effusion.

How to Use This Information

Understanding these terms can help you make sense of your shoulder MRI report and facilitate more informed discussions with your healthcare provider. If you encounter unfamiliar terms in your report, don't hesitate to ask your doctor for clarification.


What does a partial-thickness rotator cuff tear mean? A partial-thickness rotator cuff tear means the tendon is not completely torn through. It can cause pain and weakness but might not require surgery.

How is bursitis identified on an MRI? Bursitis is identified by the presence of fluid accumulation in the bursa, which appears as a hyperintense area on MRI images.

Can an MRI detect all types of shoulder injuries? MRI is highly effective for detecting most shoulder injuries, but some conditions may require additional tests or imaging techniques for a definitive diagnosis.

What should I do if my MRI report mentions tendon retraction? Consult your doctor to discuss the implications of tendon retraction. Significant retraction can affect the treatment approach and the prognosis.

Is tendinosis the same as tendinitis? No, tendinosis is chronic degeneration of the tendon without inflammation, while tendinitis involves acute inflammation of the tendon.

How does an MRI report describe arthritis in the shoulder? An MRI report describing arthritis will detail the extent of cartilage loss, the presence of bone spurs, and any changes in the bone structure.


Deciphering a shoulder MRI report involves understanding a variety of terms and concepts. By familiarizing yourself with common anatomical, descriptive, and condition-specific terms, you can better understand your MRI results and engage in more informed discussions with your healthcare provider. Remember, while this guide provides a comprehensive overview, always consult with your doctor for personalized explanations and advice.

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