What to Expect After Rotator Cuff Surgery


When a rotator cuff tears in your shoulder, usual treatments prior to surgery include physical therapy, cortisone injections and anti-inflammatory medications. If these do not relieve the symptoms caused by the tear, surgery may be required. Recovering from rotator cuff surgery can be a long process, depending on a number of factors.


Rotator cuff surgery is a major surgery. It entails an incision in the skin, removing scar tissue and sutures in bone and tendon tissue. Following surgery, a shot of medication such as Demerol or morphine may be given. After the first day or two, Tylenol with codeine or similar pain medications may be given orally. In most cases, pain medication is no longer needed after two weeks have passed.

Shoulder Movement

The stiffness associated with rotator cuff injuries is often because of scar tissue. The surgery removes the scar tissue, but it can return. The removal of the scar tissue will allow a greater range of movement without pain. Following surgery, movement of the shoulder should begin as soon as possible. As early as in the recovery room, a continuous passive motion (CPM) machine may be employed to gently move the shoulder. While the patient remains hospitalized, the machine will be used daily.


Usually the day of the surgery or the next, a physical therapist will teach rehabilitation exercises to the patient. These exercises will be continued after discharge to maintain the shoulder's range of motion. The rehabilitation program can be done at home by the patient without further assistance. Periodic checkups to evaluate progress may be required by the doctor or therapist.

Resuming Activities

The patient may be walking soon after surgery, but should limit arm movement to below the elbow, keeping the upper arm against the side of the body. Gradually regular activities may be resumed, but not until the shoulder feels loose and comfortable and only under the recommendation of the doctor. Driving should not be attempted until all the motions necessary to do so can be performed comfortably. Full recovery can take three to six months, depending on the extent of the surgery, the patient's overall health prior to surgery and the consistency of performing the rehabilitation exercises. Until recovery is complete, the patient may need assistance with some daily functions, such as dressing.

Long Term

When the shoulder feels loose and moves comfortably, different exercises may be used to strengthen it. Light sports may be resumed 6 to 12 months after surgery. Other more strenuous activities such as chopping wood or lifting weights may have to be avoided completely so as not to re-injure the cuff.

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