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What's it like: To have your rotator cuff repaired

Jaclyn Cosgrove: Half of those who suffer from shoulder pain can relieve pain through nonsurgical means.
by Jaclyn Cosgrove Published: September 15, 2013

Why get your rotator cuff repaired?

Your arm is kept in your shoulder socket by your rotator cuff, a group of muscles and tendons that help the shoulder rotate and move. These muscles come together as tendons to form a covering around the head of the humerus, the upper arm bone.

Surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff generally involves reattaching the tendon to the head of the humerus. However, a partial tear might only need a process called debridement, in which a surgeon trims the area of bad tissue.

People generally need to get their rotator cuffs repaired either because they've injured it or because the muscles have deteriorated over time. For example, someone might acutely tear their rotator cuff after falling on their shoulder or falling on an outstretched arm. Some estimates that show, after 60, more than 50 percent of people have a rotator cuff tear.

Rotator cuff injuries are common in the working population, with rotator cuff disorder ranking second only to back and neck pain in frequency of occurrence in the workplace.

In about 50 percent of patients who suffer from rotator cuff pain, nonsurgical treatment relieves pain and improves function in the shoulder. Shoulder strength, however, does not usually improve without surgery. At the same time, it does not always return with surgery.

What happens during surgery?

To begin the surgery, you'll either be placed under general anesthesia and go to sleep, or you'll have a regional anesthetic, in which your shoulder and area around it is numb.

There are three techniques most commonly used to repair a rotator cuff, including an open repair, an arthroscopic repair and a mini-open repair.

An open repair is generally used if the tear is large or complex. During surgery, your surgeon will cut over the shoulder and detach your deltoid, your shoulder muscle. The surgeon will then look over the tear and tie the rotator cuff tendon back down.

During an arthroscopic repair, your surgeon will generally make small cuts around your shoulder. Your surgeon uses a small camera to see inside your joint and to look at the structures within your shoulder. This will also allow your surgeon the ability to identify the condition of your shoulder, along with your cartilage and soft tissue.

Each surgeon will differ on his or her surgery preference and how he or she performs the specific surgery. An arthroscopic repair is generally outpatient procedures and is the least invasive method to repair a rotator cuff.

Does it hurt?

Before the surgery, most people are either in pain or have weakness in their shoulder. Your surgery should alleviate that, although it's not an absolute. During the surgery, you might receive a nerve block anesthesia. This will numb your shoulder and arm and can, in some patients, help better ensure a positive outcome.

Most people are in pain after surgery for up to two weeks. You likely will receive a prescription for pain narcotics after surgery.

One of the biggest concerns with a rotator cuff repair is that the tendon will retear. Small twinges during physical therapy are common and usually don't mean the repair has failed. It is not easy to tell if the rotator cuff tendon repair has failed or not. The symptoms of pain or loss of strength are common after rotator cuff surgery while the tendons are healing.

What are the risk factors?

The risk factors for any surgery include bleeding and infection.

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by Jaclyn Cosgrove
Medical and Health Reporter
Jaclyn Cosgrove writes about health, public policy and medicine in Oklahoma, among other topics. She is an Oklahoma State University graduate. Jaclyn grew up in the southeast region of the state and enjoys writing about rural Oklahoma. She is...
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