The aim of this study was to investigate the involvement of apoptosis (programmed cell death) in the pathogenesis of rotator cuff disorders. The edges of torn supraspinatus rotator cuff tendons were collected from patients with rotator cuff tear (n = 25). Samples of the intra-articular portion of subscapularis tendons were collected from patients without rotator cuff tear as control (n = 6). To minimize individual variance, we also collected six pairs of supraspinatus tendon and subscapularis tendon from six patients with rotator cuff tears. Apoptosis was detected by in situ DNA end labelling assay and DNA laddering assay. Immunohistochemical staining was performed to identify cells undergoing apoptosis. Control subscapularis tendon had normal morphology. Tendon from torn supraspinatus rotator cuff showed significant mucoid degeneration. Within the areas of degeneration, there were large numbers of apoptotic cells. The percentage of apoptotic cells in the degenerative rotator cuff (34%) was significantly higher than that in controls (13%) (p < 0.001). The excessive apoptosis detected in degenerative rotator cuff tissue was confirmed by DNA laddering assays. This is the first report of excessive apoptosis in degenerating rotator cuff tendon. Cells undergoing apoptosis in rotator cuff were mainly fibroblast-like cells. These finding indicate that apoptosis may play an important role in the pathogenesis of rotator cuff degeneration.