Recovery After Rotator Cuff Surgery
People of all ages are at risk of getting a rotator cuff injury. The rotator cuff is a collection of tendons and muscles in the upper arm that connect the shoulder blade and humerus bone. The tissues also support proper range of motion (ROM) and help keep the joint stabilized. Signs that a person may have experienced a rotator cuff injury include shoulder weakness, reduced ROM, pain, and visible hesitation when moving the shoulder, especially when reaching overhead, lifting, or pulling.
What causes a rotator cuff injury?
For most people, sustained wear and tear is the primary cause of a rotator cuff injury. However, other factors, such as poor posture and slouching the head forward, can encourage damage to the shoulder. Stress from repetitive movements can also cause damage, especially among athletes like tennis and baseball players who engage in repetitive overhead motions.
Treating the damage
Only some people with rotator cuff damage are good candidates for surgery. Depending on the severity of the injury, the healthcare provider might recommend less invasive solutions. For example, individuals with minor damage may consider at-home treatments such as icing the area and resting the joint, along with strengthening exercises. With more severe injuries, for people that don’t see improvement after 6 months, or in cases where daily life is affected, surgery may be the best option. Serious athletes also tend to opt for surgery as a first treatment method to return to the game quicker.
Understanding rotator cuff repair
A surgeon will determine whether the rotator cuff surgery should be open, arthroscopic, or a mini-open repair. Regardless of the surgery type, most people can be discharged home the same day as the operation. Open surgeries are the most invasive because of the larger incision that leaves the shoulder exposed. An arthroscopic surgery is considered minimally invasive because of the use of micro-surgical tools and a guiding camera scope to repair the damage. A mini-open repair is a hybrid approach of both open surgery and arthroscopy.
Every patient’s recovery times will vary depending on the severity of the injury as well as the patient’s health and commitment to physical therapy (PT) post-op. Individuals with minor damage can expect to achieve full function and range of motion within 4 months. People with more significant injuries might need as much as 6 months to reach the same benchmark. In extreme cases, the timeline can extend to 6-12 months. Non-athletes can typically return to normal activity levels around 12 weeks post-surgery. By contrast, athletes might not be approved to return to sports that require overhead throwing until 4-6 months post-surgery.
Regain ROM with PT
Although most people will see improvement after rotator cuff repair surgery, individual outcomes depend on whether a patient engages in physical therapy. The sooner a person can begin the process, the better the outcomes tend to be. Most surgeons will encourage patients to start PT the first week after surgery and stick with a set schedule.
A stronger shoulder
If an individual has a shoulder injury that hasn’t improved with at-home treatment, consider talking with an orthopedic surgeon and see if rotator cuff repair might be the solution. With the right surgical approach and a commitment to PT, patients can restore range of motion and return to normal activities pain-free.