The Rotator Cuff Surgery Recovery Timeline

Posted on Jul 2, 2019, by

After a rotator cuff tear, some injuries can be treated with rest, ice, heat, steroid injections, low-resistance exercise and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen. However, surgery is the most common form of treatment. When those nonsurgical treatment options are exhausted, or if your doctor deems an injury serious enough, surgery will be recommended. 

Many factors play into your individual rotator cuff surgery recovery timeline. After all, every body is different, so every recovery is different. Recovery requires patience and care for your injury.

 This rotator cuff surgery recovery timeline provides a general outline of what to expect during and after surgery. As always, if you have any questions, contact us at the Kennedy Center

What happens during rotator cuff surgery?

The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that extends from the shoulder blade to the ball of the shoulder joint, connecting and adding stability. This “cuff” allows you to raise your arm overhead and rotate it. When a tear happens, it can be painful or even impossible to move or raise your arm.

During surgery, an orthopedic surgeon makes a small incision on the outside of the shoulder, through the muscle, to reach the rotator cuff. Based on the severity of the tear, the tendon is reattached to the arm bone by stitching, or the tendon is trimmed or smoothed.

How long will I stay in the hospital?

Rotator cuff repair is an outpatient procedure. The surgery only takes a few hours.  After surgery, your arm will be placed in a sling to help keep the shoulder stable. Patients are sent home once pain is effectively managed. 

Your first postoperative visit with your doctor will be 10-14 days after surgery. At this time, you will be referred  to physical therapy.

How can I move my arm after surgery?

Returning to full range of motion after rotator cuff surgery happens in four steps: passive motion, active motion, strengthening and full activity. Your physical therapist will guide you through each of the four recovery phases.

Passive motion is generally the first six weeks after your first post-op visit. During this time, the rotator cuff is not doing any work. So, the shoulder moves without adding any pressure to the repair. Your physical therapist will explain passive motion and show you how to move your arm without contracting the rotator cuff muscles.

Next comes active motion. During this phase, your shoulder is healed enough to start moving the arm, but without added resistance. This period lasts up to 12-weeks post-op.

The most important phase comes next: Strengthening. After spending up to three months without much use, the rotator cuff muscles have weakened and need to be strengthened in order to return to normal activity level.  You will learn the proper exercises that focus directly on the specific muscles that need attention.

After about four to six months, you may be able to resume full activity. Again, everyone’s rotator cuff surgery recovery timeline is different. The time it takes to return to normal activity depends on the size of the tear, commitment to recovery and more.

When can I take a shower?

For most surgeries, you will be able to take a shower two to three days after surgery. You may remove the sling for showers, but leave your arm by your side and do not raise it over your head. If you had a full incision, your doctor will give you information about showering and cleaning your injury. 

Rotator cuff surgery recovery tip: To wash under the armpit of the healing arm, lean to the side and allow the arm to fall away from your body.

What’s the safest way to sleep?

Sleeping on your back at an incline is the best way to sleep comfortably after rotator cuff repair. Lying on your side, stomach or flat on your back can be painful and irritating to your healing shoulder. In addition, you will need to sleep with your sling on to protect your shoulder for the first six weeks post-surgery. Our surgeons recommend sleeping in a recliner or semi-reclined position for the first two weeks following surgery

Rotator cuff surgery recovery tip: Many people find a recliner to be the best option for sleeping after rotator cuff repair.

When can I remove the sling?

Generally, patients will be able to remove the sling during the day after four weeks. It is often recommended that you sleep in the sling for at least six weeks post-operation. 

When can I return to work?

The answer to this question very much depends upon your job. With a desk job, you may be able to return to work two to four weeks after the procedure, with restrictions. However, if your job requires manual labor, it may take three to four months to return to work. If your work necessitates lots of lifting your arms overhead, it may be time to consider a new job.

When can I drive again?

It is not recommended that you drive while wearing your sling. In addition, patients should not drive while taking strong pain medications. Usually, you can begin driving after rotator cuff surgery around four to six weeks post-op.

When can I start exercising?

You can begin walking right after surgery, but rest when you feel tired. Continue to walk just a little more each day. Walking improves blood flow, which can ultimately improve healing and recovery.

During recovery, only do the weightlifting approved by your doctor. It’s important that you work your way back slowly to your normal exercise routine.  This can take anywhere from four to six months. Not to mention, it may take between six months and a year for you to lift anything overhead. Try to remain patient as your shoulder muscles heal and strengthen.

Heal better and stronger with the proper rotator cuff recovery.

Recovering from rotator cuff surgery requires care and patience. It is important to know your boundaries and not push yourself too far, or else you can injure yourself further. After surgery, follow the instructions of your doctor, while listening to your body.  With patience and exercise, your shoulder will heal and be strong again. 

Questions about the rotator cuff surgery recovery timeline? Contact our team at the Kennedy Center, click here.

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