When it comes to rotator cuff surgery, the first question on most people’s lips is the obvious one: how long will it take me to recover from this?
It’s a good question. And the short but slightly irritating answer is: it depends.
Recovery timelines vary depending on many different factors, such as age, lifestyle, fitness and the size and severity of the tear in your shoulder. Not to mention your stickability when it comes to rehab and exercises. In medicine, there’s no such thing as the one-size-fits-all.
That said, we can sketch out a rough map of expectations for your recovery from rotator cuff repair – the sort of journey most patients will travel on their way back to health. Here’s what that looks like.
A rotator cuff injury is what happens when one or more of the four key muscles and tendons around the shoulder joint suffers a sprain or tear. While many heal naturally over time, some need surgery. This often involves re-stitching torn tissue to the bone – and that will make the area very sore and delicate afterwards. So in prepping for surgery, the first thing we try to do is manage expectations. We hope to make your shoulder much better, but we can’t promise to make it perfect. And it will take time.
Rotator cuff repairs are usually performed with you asleep and you should be able to go home within a day. You may be given a nerve block to numb the area during the operation. The effects last a few hours, so as those wear off you’ll take further pain killers to make you more comfortable. We fit you with a sling, which will help to support your shoulder and keep it immobilised. A nurse or physiotherapist will show you how to move your arm in and out of the sling so you can wash and dress.
The main focus of week one is rest, with good pain control. For most people that means simple analgesics like paracetamol or Cocodamol. We may also offer you some medication to help you sleep more comfortably. Ideally, you’ll be applying ice packs every few hours to help reduce pain and swelling. Meanwhile, you’ll take it easy: very gentle, dangling motion of the arm is the most to attempt at this stage. You will be able to perform some hand, wrist and elbow movements.
By two weeks, the most uncomfortable stage of recovery should be over. Most patients are able to reduce their pain relief at this point. This is also the stage where you will return to hospital to have your dressing and stitches removed. You may also see the physiotherapy team again to get some specialist exercises for the next steps in the journey.
Somewhere around the month to six-week mark, you’ll be able to lose the sling and begin to sleep on both sides again. We’ll phase in some limited ‘active motion’ of the shoulder, too. Active motion means you can begin to move the shoulder, but not against resistance. Many patients find they are able to drive again from six weeks, and do some gentle swimming. We will also book you in for a consultation, to check your progress and talk about any concerns you may have.
After passive and active motion, the third phase of rehab is strengthening. This usually starts from around eight weeks. You’ll begin work on the exercises that your physiotherapy gave you earlier on the timeline. The aim here is to rebuild the shoulder muscles that have deteriorated after long inactivity.
4-6 months +
For many rotator cuff patients, six months is a key staging post on the road to a full recovery. By now your shoulder should be feeling stronger, and routine tasks will be returning. You will start to do lifting and pushing work again, from raising yourself out of chairs to gentle gardening or even manual labour.
But this is really just the beginning: you can see incremental progress for up to two years following a rotator cuff operation. It’s a long time, no question. But the wait is generally felt to be worth it. Most patients report less pain and improved strength after taking the plunge with rotator cuff repair. It’s a good option to have on the list of potential treatments.
Interested in finding out more about Rotator Cuff Repair and how you could improve your recovery time after surgery? We are always happy to meet with patients to offer advice, direction and support. Why not get in touch? We’d be delighted to hear from you.