It only takes a moment to injure critical tendons in your shoulder, but it will take months to get your shoulder to return to normal functionality. Once your orthopedic surgeon has repaired the torn rotator cuff, you'll begin a long journey with the physical therapist to recover completely. Here is what to expect as you leave the hospital and during the next few months of recovery at home.
Your Last Day in the Hospital
If your surgeon chooses to do an arthroscopic repair of your shoulder, you may be in and out of the hospital in a day. If the procedure is more extensive, your doctor will have you stay overnight so they can make sure there is no excess pain or drainage.
Whenever you are discharged, you'll go home with your arm in a special sling that holds your arm against your body. This keeps the shoulder in the best position for healing. You'll wear the sling constantly for several weeks, only taking it off briefly to bathe.
Because your elbow, wrist and hand can become stiff in the sling, the hospital staff will show you exercises you can do to keep those parts of your arm flexible. Your doctor will tell you when you can use your arm for daily activities and you'll want your hand, wrist and elbow to function normally when the sling comes off.
First Days at Home
Before you leave the hospital, the doctor will set you up with a physiotherapy program to begin getting your shoulder back into shape. You won't actually start the program for a few days. You need time to get accustomed to doing your daily activities without the use of your arm and shoulder. You'll also be monitoring the shoulder incisions for signs of drainage or infection. After a few days of inactivity with your arm, you'll begin your next phase of recovery - physical therapy.
Passive and Assisted Motion
The first few weeks of physical therapy consists of slowly stretching out the muscles and tendons in your shoulder to their normal length. Due to the surgery and inactivity, the muscles contract and feel stiff. Your range of motion will be limited. The goal of this phase is to restore full range of motion to your shoulder.
During this phase, your therapist will move your arm for you to carefully extend your shoulder and move it through its range of motion. They will also show you how to move your affected arm with your other arm to work with your shoulder between sessions. The therapist will measure and record the amount of bending, extension and rotation that you're capable of with your shoulder. They will have target measurements that they want you to achieve before moving to the next phase of recovery.
This phase engages the muscles in your shoulder to move your arm and shoulder without assistance. This builds up the strength in those unused muscles. As the muscles become stronger, they are more able to hold your shoulder in a stable position and protect it from injury. Your physical therapist will show you exercises to do on your own to strengthen the muscles. This phase will take several weeks and longer if you will be returning to sports activities that affect your shoulder.
The key to your successful recovery after the surgery is to work with the therapist to set your pace and understand the limitations. Should you become impatient and exceed these, you risk re-injuring the shoulder and prolonging your recovery. Be sure to stick to your physiotherapy program to avoid any complications.