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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

With a rotator cuff repair, one of the biggest risks is that you will retear the tendon. The risk of retear is a debated topic, with estimates of how many patients retear their tendons ranging from 5 percent to 90 percent.

Regardless, it's important to listen to your doctor and physical therapy and understand your limitations. The factors that contribute to a retear include a person's age, with older patients having a higher risk of retear; how long the tear has been there; and the quality of tissue. If the tear is left untreated for a long time, this can cause the muscle to turn into fat, which can result in the repair not healing as well.

What's the recovery time?

Generally, after between three and four months, you can return to normal activities.

When you wake up from surgery, you likely will be in a sling. This sling is to protect your repair. It's important to listen to your surgeon's instructions regarding the sling. For example, some surgeons will recommend you wear the sling while you sleep. Others might not. It will also depend on your level of injury and the extent of your repair.

Your range of motion will be quite limited directly after surgery. Your doctor will talk with you about the activities that you're allowed to do, versus things you should steer clear of.

Your doctor will likely recommend that you undergo physical therapy. Some insurance providers aren't as willing to cover physical therapy. Talk with your doctor about what your insurance allows, and what exercises you can do outside of physical therapy to ensure your repair heals.

Between two weeks to six weeks after surgery, you will have limited range of motion in your shoulder. Depending on the quality of your muscle, you might start some movement.

You'll be allowed to take a shower between two days and two weeks after your surgery, depending on your surgeon's recommendations. You likely won't be allowed to submerge your shoulder in a hot tub, lake or pool until about six weeks, although this will also vary.

Smoking can cause a person not to heal as quickly. There's also some debate about whether patients with workers' compensation claims have worse outcomes.

What's the follow-up?

You likely will see your surgeon about 10 to 14 days after surgery. You will have periodic doctor's visits after this, generally after six to eight weeks and then after about three months. After a year, you likely won't need to see your surgeon, unless you're experiencing pain or complications.

The recovery period for a rotator cuff repair can take a long time, especially if the tear was large. It's important to listen to your doctor, follow your physical therapy instructions and remain patient with your limitations. In some cases, rotator cuff tears might not fully heal, leading to stiffness, weakness and chronic pain. Risk of these complications is more likely when people don't perform post-surgery exercises or ignore medical professional's instructions.

Sources: Dr. Chris Espinoza, an orthopedic surgeon at McBride Orthopedic Hospital; American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons; U.S. National Library of Medicine; The Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery; International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy; The Mayo Clinic; Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research; Anesthesiology, the Journal of the American Society of Anesthesiologists; John Hopkins Medicine.

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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