Recovering from Rotator Cuff Surgery

A Practical Guide

by Tony Rothwell, with notes for the fairer sex by Sally Seiler – a couple of people who had rotator cuffs repaired and found that, while they received comprehensive pre-surgery instructions, they were given little advice for the recovery. This is designed to fill the gap in the hopes that it will help others.

At the end of these notes, in addition to the inevitable disclaimer, you will find a form to send in comments and additional suggestions to assist fellow cuffians’ recovery.

Hint: to begin with, read them all through – what you are looking for may be included later on.

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We all know that recovering from rotator cuff surgery is likely to be

but what can we do to prepare for the immediate post-operation period to make life as easy on ourselves as possible AND on those taking care of us?
Here are some hints we hope will help you.

A New Wardrobe?

New Wardrobe Plan ahead by buying shirts and pajama tops at least one size bigger than you would normally wear. You need the ones with buttons - they will help you greatly with the dressing process. Undershirts are comforting and trainer type pants are great as long as they have elasticated tops, plus you’ll need slip-on shoes (no more laces for a while) or shoes with valcro fastenings. You will need assistance with socks – old ones that are a bit loose are preferable to new.
For females, dressing is an extra challenge because of the bra and panty hose. Give up on the panty hose. Socks will do, but you will need assistance with those too. And for sure you will need assistance with the bra until such time as you can hook it in front and twist it round. Warm up suits and loose-fitting clothing will be your wardrobe. If it is cool outside you will need to get at least one cape or large scarf to cover up when going outside. Pants with side zippers are out for a while.

Tip -
men - you’ll get really good at dressing yourself after a week or two
women - a bit longer, but you’ll need someone to help with bra and socks for quite a while!

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Right After Surgery

You will be groggy, need a lot of sleep and be incapable of most of the practical acts of normal life. Don’t fight it – let people help you; go to sleep when you feel like it and don’t think of going to work for a few days.

Getting comfortable - lay claim to the most comfortable chair in the house – like a lazyboy rocker, and you may need some extra pillows to keep your arm propped up.

Driving certainly needs to be put off for a while and of course a stick-shift is completely out of the question. Attaching a knob to your steering wheel can be a great help especially for tight turns and parking. These can be found on-line and seem to be made more for boats than cars. There are universal ones that will fit most steering wheels using a simple clamp device. If you have to use a card to get in and out of your regular parking place but find you can’t reach, attach the card to a ruler or something similar. Also be prepared to get out of the car to get a parking ticket when you are visiting a parking lot.

Many people have trouble with constipation caused by the anesthesia and the pain-killers you will be taking regularly for the first few days. Take something to get things moving again (stool-softener for instance).

Tip – don’t wait for the pain to hit you, assume it will happen and take your medicine early.

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What to Eat

What To Eat

Easy one. It goes without saying that cutting up will be impossible for several weeks so go with soups, sandwiches that you can pick up in one hand and any food that comes in bite-sized pieces.

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Therapy And Exercise

You’ll be going for therapy at least three times a week for 5 or 6 weeks so make sure you can get there and back easily.
Make as many appointments ahead as you can to make sure they fit in with your life and the life of anyone else effected.

You’ll also have various exercises to do at home every day. Be religious about doing your home PT exercises – they may hurt initially but you will be  amazed at your progress and your therapist will be able to get on more quickly with you, thus shortening total recovery time.


Tip - to help keep on track with your exercises make a daily chart – dates down the side, exercises along the top - and check off the appropriate square every time you complete your reps. This also gives you goals and a sense of achievement.

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If eating was the easy part, sleeping is the difficult one, at least for the first two or three weeks. You will have to sleep on your back, cantilevered up on pillows to ensure the shoulder is protected. For some this is un-natural and uncomfortable but you just have to get through it until you can gradually come down to a more horizontal position and even start to lie on the non-effected shoulder. You may also want to put a couple of pillows under your knees so you don’t get back-ache from sleeping on your back


A problem to be aware of is that when you are asleep your body may decide to try and extricate your arm from its confinement in the sling and you will wake up thinking someone is trying to cut off your arm – not nice. The good news is that it won’t happen often, it isn’t doing any real harm and the pain subsides relatively quickly.

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Washing, Showering, Hygiene

Showering Washing – a wash-cloth is essential. Showering is difficult and daunting in the first days after surgery, but the pleasure of feeling the lovely warm water splashing all over your body far outweighs the difficulty. You’ll have to protect the bandages until they come off (usually about a week) then you’re free to enjoy a really good shower. If you have someone in your life you can shower with so much the better – that helps with comprehensive soaping and is a lot of fun! And if no one is handy you can access areas to wash by bending at the waist to reach under arms etc.

Brushing teeth is a problem as it really takes two hands to squeeze the tube and spread the paste as is blowing your nose, so train your mate to be on hand to help.

Tips –
Your skin dries out in the sling and will start to itch, often badly enough to wake you up. Rub in skin lotion every night and every morning to prevent this.

Depending on the time of year you may also find that you are sweating which can cause a rash, so you can find relief by putting a piece of gauze under your arm to absorb the perspiration.

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And Lastly…

  • try not to ever tense (“fire-up”) your shoulder muscles, as your physio will tell you a million times
  • if you feel tired, stop doing whatever it is you’re doing. Anesthesia takes it out of you as does dressing and eating with one arm and coping with a strange position in bed, so give yourself permission to have a nap whenever you’re feeling pooped.

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Final Thoughts

Note that there is nothing ‘official’ about this site or these suggestions nor is it sponsored by a medical or commercial organization.
The notes were not compiled by medical people and are not intended in anyway as a substitute for the directions and advice given to you by your hospital, surgeon or physio.
You should exercise your own good judgment in deciding whether to follow any of the advice given. All we can say is that it worked for us.

Good luck with your recovery (the harder you work at it the ‘luckier’ you will be!) and let us have your comments and suggestions on the FORUM provided.

Tony Rothwell and Sally Seiler