Debunking the Myth: Ageing, Disc Bulges, and Rotator Cuff Tears


As we age, our bodies undergo numerous changes, and it’s not uncommon for aches and pains to become part of our daily lives. Among the most frequently cited culprits for discomfort are disc bulges and rotator cuff tears. However, recent studies have shed new light on these common issues, challenging the assumption that they are always the root cause of pain. Let’s delve into the research and explore why disc bulges and rotator cuff tears might not be the villains we once thought them to be.

Firstly, let’s address disc bulges. These protrusions of the intervertebral discs in the spine have long been associated with back pain, leading many to believe that they are the primary cause of discomfort, especially in older individuals. However, studies have shown that disc bulges are remarkably common, even among those without any history of back pain. In fact, research published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that among asymptomatic individuals over the age of 60, over 50% had evidence of disc bulges or protrusions when examined via MRI (1). This suggests that disc bulges might be a normal part of the aging process, rather than a pathological condition warranting immediate intervention.

Similarly, the rotator cuff, a group of muscles and tendons in the shoulder, is prone to tears as we age. These tears are often presumed to be the cause of shoulder pain and reduced mobility. However, recent studies have challenged this assumption. Research published in the Journal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery found that among individuals over 60 years old with no history of shoulder pain, nearly 50% had evidence of rotator cuff tears on imaging studies (2). Furthermore, many of these tears were found to be small and asymptomatic, suggesting that they might not be the sole cause of discomfort in older adults.

So, if disc bulges and rotator cuff tears are so common among older adults, why do some people experience pain while others do not? The answer lies in the complex interplay of various factors, including genetics, lifestyle, and overall musculoskeletal health. While disc bulges and rotator cuff tears might be present, they do not necessarily equate to pain. Instead, it is often the result of other factors such as muscle imbalances, poor posture, or previous injuries that contribute to discomfort.

Moreover, our perception of pain is highly subjective and can be influenced by psychological factors such as stress, anxiety, and depression. This means that two individuals with identical structural abnormalities, such as disc bulges or rotator cuff tears, might experience vastly different levels of pain based on their psychological state and coping mechanisms.

So, what does this mean for the management of back and shoulder pain in older adults? Rather than focusing solely on treating structural abnormalities, individuals should adopt a more holistic approach that addresses the underlying causes of pain, including lifestyle modifications, physical therapy, and psychological support. Additionally, education plays a crucial role in understanding that disc bulges and rotator cuff tears are not always pain inducing and that pain management involves addressing a multitude of factors.

In conclusion, recent studies have challenged the notion that disc bulges and rotator cuff tears are always the cause of pain in older adults. While these structural abnormalities are indeed common with aging, they do not necessarily lead to discomfort. By adopting a holistic approach to pain management and addressing the multifaceted nature of pain, we can better support the health and well-being of older individuals, allowing them to live active and fulfilling lives despite the inevitable changes that come with age.



1. Brinjikji W, Luetmer PH, Comstock B, et al. Systematic literature review of imaging features of spinal degeneration in asymptomatic populations. Am J Neuroradiol. 2015;36(4):811-816. doi:10.3174/ajnr.A4173
2. Yamamoto A, Takagishi K, Osawa T, et al. Prevalence and risk factors of a rotator cuff tear in the general population. J Shoulder Elbow Surg. 2010;19(1):116-120. doi:10.1016/j.jse.2009.04.006

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