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What to Expect After a Rotator Cuff Repair Surgery

You have been suffering with shoulder pain for months, and have attempted to address the pain with anything and everything.  You have gone through physical therapy, taken medications, and have had injections without any improvement in your symptoms.  You have an MRI and the doctor tells you that you have a rotator cuff tear that should be repaired.  What next?

Having surgery is a scary, no matter the issue.  Sometimes, the more you are prepared, the less anxiety you can have leading up to the surgery.  Here are some helpful tips to know before going into your rotator cuff surgery:

  • It is going to hurt. I’m not saying this to scare you, but to calm your fears because you will probably feel some discomfort after the surgery.  Some pain is VERY normal.  There are things that you can do to assist with decreasing pain levels such as take the medications as prescribed by your surgeon, ice intermittently throughout the day, do your physical therapy stretches or movements, and take deep, relaxing breaths.
  • Get ready to sleep in a recliner. Because of our anatomical structure, lying down flat on your back or side after a rotator cuff tear can be irritating. Lying down can tug or put pressure on the surgical site so be prepared to sleep at more of an incline in a recliner or propped up in bed with pillows to find your comfort position.
  • Your physical therapy does NOT have to be painful. Initially after surgery, most surgeons want you to perform only passive motion to the shoulder. This means that you are not actively controlling the motion with the muscles surrounding your shoulder.  Your physical therapist will show you ways for movement of the shoulder that does not activate your rotator cuff as well as perform some gentle, passive motion on you.
  • You may not be able to go back to work right away. If you work a job where you don’t have to use your surgical shoulder/arm, give yourself at least 5-7 days for recovering at home before getting back in the grind.  When you plan on going back, give yourself small doses of work time. For instance, try going into work for 2-4 hours the first 2-3 days and slowly add hours as you tolerate.  When you have surgery, your body is focused on recovery, so small amounts of activity can seem more fatiguing than normal.
  • Listen to your surgeon and your physical therapist. Follow all of the precautions that they tell you!  If you want your surgery to have the best possible outcome, do not try to do too much, even if you are feeling well.  There is reasoning for the limitations your surgeon puts on you, especially in the first 6-10 weeks after surgery in order to protect the area that has been fixed.  Your physical therapist is there to coach you and remind you of these precautions and guide you to what home exercises should be your focus.
  • Get ready for a sling. You will most likely have to wear a sling after surgery for at least the first few weeks, depending on your surgeon’s protocol.  If you have the sling ahead of time, practice putting it on and taking it off before surgery. It might make it slightly easier to use the sling after surgery when you have swelling and stiffness in that shoulder.
  • Don’t plan on driving for the first 7-14 days after. Depending on what medication you are on and your surgeon’s protocol, do not plan on being able to drive right after your surgery.  Make sure to make arrangements for rides to appointments ahead of time.
  • You will not be able to lift anything with your surgical shoulder for several months. Depending on the severity of your tear and your surgeon’s protocol, typically the first 6 weeks are passive range of motion. The next 6 weeks work toward actively moving your arm. Around 12 weeks out from surgery, you can start a light progression with resistance exercises.

If you have any questions or need any more advice on what to expect after a rotator cuff surgery, please feel free to contact OPTI at (402)934-8688.  Remember, most of the time with a surgery like this, there is delayed gratification, so BE PATIENT and follow your surgeon’s and physical therapist’s recommendations and precautions/restrictions!

Good luck!

Katie Cordery, PT