Recovery from Rotator Cuff Repair

Since rotator cuff repair is the most common surgery I perform, a common question is:  "How long before I recover from a rotator cuff repair?"  The quick answer: 3 to 6 months.  Read below to learn more.

What is the rotator cuff?  The rotator cuff is a series of tendons around the shoulder.  Tears in the rotator cuff are common, especially after the age of 40.  Since the tendon does not heal on its own, surgery may sometimes be used to relieve symptoms of pain and weakness.  Surgery is arthroscopic, through small incisions, and generally causes minimal scarring.  However, the recovery from a rotator cuff repair is difficult  and takes many months!

There are three phases to recovery from rotator cuff repair surgery: 

First, the healing phase of recovery.  During this phase motion is limited and a sling must be worn.  Gentle physical therapy may be started, but no aggressive motion.  I allow patients to remove their sling while seated (for instance, while watching TV) and at night. In patients with small or partial tears, this phase may be as short as two weeks.  For larger, more complex tears, this phase may be as long as six weeks. 

Second, the motion phase.  During this phase the sling can be removed and aggressive physical therapy is started to restore motion.  During this time activity is generally limited to lifting less than 5 pounds and below chest level.  This phase generally lasts 4 to 6 weeks.

Third, the strengthening phase.  Once motion is restored, strengthening exercises are begun.  This phase may last another 4 to 6 weeks, during which time lifting is limited to 20 pounds.

Recovery time for most patients is about 4 months.  During this time many people will experience nighttime pain, stiffness, popping, catching, and feelings of tightness.  All of that is normal!  In fact, most people continue to experience symptoms for up to a year from the time of surgery.  You won't be 100% until one year from surgery.  It is important to understand this, otherwise the recovery can be very frustrating.

For work, most people with office jobs can easily go back to work after a 3-7 days.  The sling can be removed for typing and writing almost immediately.  For physical jobs return to work is much different.  In patients with very high demand jobs (carpentery, drywall installation, pipefitters, construction workers) return to full duty should be expected at 4-5 months from the time of surgery.

The most important thing that you can do to recover from your rotator cuff repair surgery is to be absolutely faithful to your physical therapy and absolutely religious about doing your exercises at home.  I am convinced that the best outcomes come to the patient who is most committed to their therapy.

If you are considering rotator cuff repair or have had the surgery, I hope this helps.