What to expect from rotator cuff surgery

Summer’s almost here and many of you are spending long hours in the garden and having a blast.  However, nothing stops you right in your tracks quite like shoulder pain.  A shoulder injury is bad enough, but the thought of needing rotator cuff surgery is downright daunting.  Understanding the healing process and what to expect from the rehab can make for calmer nerves and a speedy recovery.

Rotator cuff tears effect between 4% and 32% of the population, with an increase in odds as we age.  Conservative management can be very successful with partial thickness tears.  However, if there is a full thickness tear of the rotator cuff, surgery is your best option.

You can break down the rehab from rotator cuff surgery into 3 phases: Inflammatory, repair, and remodeling phase.

Although each surgeon has a different protocol for rehab, you can generally expect to be immobilized for 4-6 weeks right after surgery with the arm in a slightly abducted position to minimize tension on the repair site.  During the 4-6 weeks in a sling, be prepared to only perform passive range of motion activities 3-5 times per day to keep the joint from becoming too stiff.

After the 4-6 weeks, you will probably be cleared to start using the arm for activities of daily living, and your exercises can progress to active assisted, which means your other arm will need to help a bit.  Your PT will be now mobilizing your shoulder to regain full active and passive range of motion in all planes. Some people find performing their exercises in water to be much easier during this phase.

After about 8-12 weeks, you can start rotator cuff strengthening exercises, provided you have full passive and active range of motion in all directions without much pain.  Your PT will prescribe specific exercises to help strengthen your rotator cuff again.

The final phase of rehab is at about the 12-16 week mark and can be characterized as the advanced strengthening phase.  In order to graduate from this phase, you must demonstrate full function and strength without pain with correct biomechanics.  Special consideration is now given to those individuals who may be going back to a specific sport or activity that may require additional strength and stability.

In summary, you will be looking at about 4-5 months of hard work to regain full use of your arm.  However, if the rehab is done correctly, you should be at 100% function and without limitations!  Good luck!