8 Useful Tips for a Speedy Recovery After Rotator Cuff Surgery


I am a fairly athletic, fit, twenty-year-old. After having gone through rotator cuff surgery, certain things become apparent. When searching online for tips and tricks, there is much to be found. You can find anything from support groups, what type of post surgery clothing you need, what to do during your rest periods, extremely detailed reports about what your body is doing during these rest periods.

What I also came to realize is that everyone has a different experience. Why? Because everyone deals with surgery in a different way. Patients face different challenges depending on a myriad of issues and circumstances such as age, lifestyle, level of health and fitness, to name a few. 

The one common thread among most patients though, is that recovery takes a long time so being prepared pays off.

With today’s advances in medical technologies, surgery is the easy part but recovery is long and often arduous. 

Here are 8 rotator cuff surgery recovery tips that may help you through your surgery and recovery period.

1. Physical Planning

Who knew how much physical planning you need to do before getting ready for rotator cuff surgery? As it turns out, preparing your body for surgery can be very beneficial to the recovery process.

The idea is that a physical therapists will help strengthen the muscles around the afflicted area. By making the area around the injury stronger, it helps alleviate stress of the injured area thus requiring the muscles and joints work less.

Physical Therapists are very careful not to bother or aggravate the already existing injury. And for many, physical therapy results in noticeable relief of the affected area.  Be warned however. The relief is temporary and the strengthening does not resolve a tear, fracture, bicep tendon tear, or chronic shoulder instability. 

In my case, I put the surgery off so long that I actually compromised the bone between the tendon and the joint.  Do not even think about skipping out on your surgery because of this temporary relief. Understand that it is just a temporary improvement.

Another thing you can do is train your body to do things with your non-dominant hand. If you brush your teeth with your right hand, it is time to start practicing with your left. Same goes for writing, cutting, sewing, eating, dressing etc. Whatever you can think of, just practice it with your other hand. You will not regret it. When it comes to having your body prepped, the more you can do ahead, the better.

2. Post-Surgical Shopping

Have you ever wondered how hard life would be with only one arm? Or one leg? I am sure most people have. It makes us all grateful and gives us perspective. But how many of you have gone a step further and sought out products to help you out on the chance that you no longer had a limb to work with? My guess is probably a lot less.

There really isn’t much out there and dressing is one of the most difficult things to do after surgery. For the first few days after shoulder surgery it is imperative to keep your arm stable and to minimize movement. Regular clothing was just not made to work with a bent arm, a bandaged shoulder and an arm sling. The extra large button down shirt that your supposed to bring to the hospital doesn’t actually fit around your body and sling.

So be prepared to go home bare-chested unless you get adaptive clothing for shoulder surgery. And even with that, you will need help to get it on. But once you are dressed you will be able to manage the zippers for icing on your own and you won’t need to get undressed for follow up doctor visits. Pants with elastic waists are the easiest to get on and off with one hand.

Eating is another challenge. You will not be able to manage meals that require a knife and fork. If there isn’t someone around to cut up your food, stock up on meals that can be eaten with just a fork or a spoon and are in bite size pieces. Yay for pizza. As long as it’s not too hot and gooey. Stay hydrated and eat lots of fruit and vegetables for fiber.

3. Preemptive strike

Pain-killers are great. They literally kill pain. But…pain-killers are usually pretty slow to work. Something important to keep in mind would be to take your pain medication before you need it. Hence the subtitle “Preemptive Strike”.

If you forget to take your medication, you might be in for an uncomfortable time.  Most doctors will tell you to stay ahead of the pain and prescribe a dosage to be taken at specified intervals. Follow the doctor’s orders.

In most cases instructions call for taking the medication with food or after a meal- it can make you nauseous if you don’t.  Do not take extra pills in any time period than what you have been prescribed. Obviously, pain medication is something that takes some getting used to. 

If you feel the recommended dosage isn’t reducing your pain, call your doctor. You may not know your bodies schedule yet. But you will find out soon enough. After a week or so, letting yourself feel the pain (within reason) can be an indicator of how much your body has actually recovered.

When it starts feeling better and better, it will be time to start stretching your medication further and further apart. But again, this is something to be discussed with your doctor.

In addition to icing the wound site, muscle relaxers are also prescribed to help reduce swelling. Again, your doctor will recommend an icing schedule and it is important that you are diligent about it.  I was able to manage my icing machine on my own but I don’t recommend it for the first few days post op.

Icing will expedite the healing process and you will be happier and more comfortable if you stick to it.

4. Rest and Recovery

Resting and recovering post surgery is often another challenge. Most people feel inclined to do anything other than lay around all day. But why? Maybe work is piling up, maybe boredom strikes, maybe the lack of exercise is making you feel crazy.

As hard as it may be to accept, you need to understand that rest is paramount. If you were to start moving around before you are allowed to by a doctor, you run the risk of hurting yourself and effectively undoing whatever recovery you had accomplished so far. You’ll then have to start from zero again.

So please, do yourself the favor. Rest. It is critical to the healing process.  Despite how hard it may be. Despite all your instincts telling you that it is alright. Until you are told so by a doctor, you need to fight it!

You’ll need to sleep propped up and putting a pillow under your arm helps to keep it stable. If you have a chaise lounge or an easy boy park yourself there.

Catch up on movies, listen to podcasts, and take advantage of the opportunity to nap. You’ll be back on the treadmill before you know it.

5. Go to Physical Therapy

Physical therapy, like surgery, is not a one formula fits all proposition. Everyone heals at a different pace. Your doctor, and only your doctor will determine when your ready to start therapy. A physical therapist will know which exercises and therapies to administer based on details provided by your doctor.

Although physical therapy can be pretty boring and repetitive, you need to understand the core concepts. PT is used to build the foundation with which your body will need to recover efficiently.

Therapists know what exercises you can do to strengthen your shoulder and surrounding ligaments. The sessions are progressive and the routine varies as you get stronger.

 Even though you may be a world -class athlete who knows so much about weight lifting and training, you may not understand all the minuscule details within your body that will help you with recovery. A good physical therapist will help you understand these details and will even individualize your session to help YOU.

In most cases you will be given a print out of exercises you can do at home in between sessions. Stick to it. You will recover better and faster if you do.

6. Wear a Sling And Watch Out for Complications

man wearing a cast

Following surgery, it is important to keep the shoulder immobilized for the initial few days so that your tendon can heal. To keep it still and stable while you're healing, wear a sling at all times! Wearing this sling will remind you not to move your arm too much and cause any more damage to your shoulder.

Watch out for any post-surgery complications as well. Avoid any major issues by knowing the signs and when to call for help. If you notice any symptoms like the high temperature at over 100 degrees then call your physician immediately! Similarly also be aware of other warning signals such as reddening or discharge around the incision, or numbness or tingling in your hand. 

7. Sleep Carefully

After you’ve had your rotator cuff surgery, sleeping in an upright position is often most comfortable. It helps you avoid putting extra pressure on your shoulder, which can result when lying flat. 

Use pillows or cushions to prop yourself up, or use something under your mattress to raise it slightly and maintain some elevation while you sleep. If sleeping on a bed like this is uncomfortable for any reason, consider using a recliner or wide armchair.

Wear a sling even when you are sleeping and use a pillow to prop up your arm, it will help reduce swelling and any accidental movements when you’re asleep.

 shoulder surgery shirts

8. Ask for Help

The first few weeks after the surgery are going to be pretty rough on you. Find someone who is willing and able to help out with the daily tasks that your body may not handle well right now, like cooking dinner, taking a shower, or driving for errands. It will make all the difference in getting back into shape faster!

Frequently Asked Questions

What to expect after rotator cuff surgery?

After a rotator cuff surgery, it is common to feel tired for a few days. Some pain and swelling around the incision are also common. In some cases, the arm and shoulder may also get swollen and will start to get better in a few days.  

How long will I have pain after rotator cuff surgery?

According to a study by John Hopkins University, the strength in the shoulder muscles of patients who have had rotator cuff surgery is not fully regained until nine months after the surgery. As a  result, it is normal to experience some symptoms of pain and swelling around the incision for several months. 

What helps pain after rotator cuff surgery?

Rest is the key to relieve pain and heal faster after a rotator cuff surgery. You can also put ice or a cold pack for the initial 3-5 days after the surgery to reduce swelling and pain. 

What to wear after rotator cuff surgery?

You will require loose clothing with a soft and comfortable fabric. Shirts with strategically placed zippers and buttons are perfect during shoulder surgery recovery. 



  • Jerry Grafton

    Thanks for article. Sept.12 is my surgery day. Learned a lot about pre \post surgery.

  • Mike Gavin-Williamson

    Very good article. I found the pain was intense 2 days after surgery when the pain blocker wore off and I got the feeling back in my arm and shoulder. That pain began to subside after about 2 days when the morphine and tramadol took effect. Highly recommend sleeping with a pillow supporting affected arm. The upright possition for me was sometimes the only way I could relieve pain and eventually sleep. Elastic waste track pants would of been great but I never had any and trying to do your top button up with one hand is near on impossible.

  • Taylor Y.

    Great article on different tips! I am having surgery next month and readying what people actually experience helps a lot with getting prepared for it!

  • Pattisue

    I am post 10 weeks fron rotator cuff. Had 2 tears and ruptured bicep. Ditto on all 8 points here. I just got out of sling at week 9. Therapy 2 x week. Doing great. I am 66.

  • Ana

    Great information! Planning for my surgical procedure. This has helped tremendously. Thank you!

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