Your shoulder is a complicated joint that can move in multiple directions. Because of this, it performs in almost all of your typical daily activities, including reaching for food on shelves, brushing your teeth, and getting dressed.
When shoulder surgery puts you out of the game for a while, recovery is essential for getting back to normal as soon as possible. Knowing what to expect, how long each step may take, and what you can do to help support the healing process may make surgery and recovery seem less daunting.
What to Expect During Shoulder Surgery Recovery
People recovering from arthroscopic shoulder surgery generally have similar recovery timelines, but your personal timeline depends on your injury, the type of surgery you have, and how healthy you were before the surgery. These estimates may help you plan for the recovery period.
Overall, recovery from shoulder surgery generally takes about six months, including the following phases1:
Immediately after surgery, you may remain in the recovery room for monitoring for an hour, and sometimes longer. As you fully regain consciousness, your doctor may advise you on wound care, pain management, and methods for controlling inflammation. This might include cold therapy to help reduce both pain and swelling.2
You will have stitches and a bandage on your shoulder. The stitches may dissolve on their own, or a doctor may need to remove them in a week or two. Most people may be able to remove the bandage within a few days.3 Your doctor may also immobilize your shoulder in a sling for at least 7-10 days. The immobilization may last even longer, because emerging research suggests longer immobilization periods may improve healing.4 Be prepared with loose-fitting clothing that does not require you to move your arm when dressing. During this time, it is also a good idea to get help from friends and family for activities such as cooking and driving.
Passive physical therapy
For the first several weeks following surgery, you may work with a physical therapist to perform gentle, assisted exercises to help regain movement and range of motion in your shoulder. Your damaged tissues will still be actively healing, so it is important not to try these exercises on your own, unless instructed by your physical therapist, because your shoulder joint needs to be supported during movement. Most physical therapists advise against overhead lifting at first and recommend steadily working to incorporate more challenging activities as the shoulder heals.5
Active physical therapy
When the internal healing process is complete, you may start to do more active exercises to continue to build strength and increase flexibility. Around the three-month mark, you may begin rebuilding strength in the arms. Most people need physical therapy until at least six months following surgery.1
After you have regained normal strength and range of motion, you may continue working with a physical therapist to help reduce the risk of further injury. If you notice pain or weakness, it is important to tell your doctor and physical therapist.
As you start the shoulder surgery recovery process, consider using cold and compression, both right after surgery to help control inflammation and as you work through physical therapy. Using cryotherapy and active compression to help limit swelling and reduce edema may limit pain and help with the recovery process.
Speak with your doctor if you are interested in cold and compression therapy for your recovery.
- How long is the recovery period after shoulder surgery? Premier Orthopaedics. https://www.premierortho.com/physical-therapy/long-recovery-period-shoulder-surgery/. Published 2014.
- The ultimate guide for shoulder recovery surgery [sic]. OrthoBethesda. https://www.orthobethesda.com/blog/the-ultimate-guide-for-shoulder-recovery-surgery/. Accessed December 11, 2019.
- Healthwise Staff. Arthroscopic surgery for shoulder instability: what to expect at home. MyHealth.Alberta.ca. https://myhealth.alberta.ca/health/AfterCareInformation/pages/conditions.aspx?HwId=ug3937. Published 2018.
- Rotator cuff surgery study suggests changes in rehabilitation needed. Hospital for Special Surgery. https://www.hss.edu/newsroom_changes-rotator-cuff-surgery-rehabilitation.asp. Published 2012.
- Rotator cuff repair rehab protocol. The Stone Clinic. https://www.stoneclinic.com/rotator-cuff-repair-rehab-protocol. Accessed December 11, 2019.