Find the answers to common questions about recovering from rotator cuff surgery

Every year in the United States, about 2 million people see a doctor for rotator cuff problems. If you’re one of those people, you know how debilitating and frustrating a rotator cuff injury can be. Even the most basic things, like washing your hair, can be painful.

“Rotator cuff disorders are frequently caused through just routine wear and tear,” says Thomas Hughes, MD, an orthopedic specialist with UPMC. “Sometimes we’ll see it within an acute injury, or if someone takes on a new activity it will stress the rotator cuff. But frequently, it comes just through regular activities of daily living.” 

If your doctor recommends surgery, you may have questions such as: Is surgery the right option? How long does it take to recover and feel normal again?

While you should defer to your surgeon about surgery and recovery issues, here are general answers to some common patient questions.

Will I Need Rotator Cuff Surgery?

The main reason people have rotator cuff surgery is because they are in pain. If your pain lingers for 6 to 12 months, your doctor may suggest surgery.

“Treatment options for rotator cuff disorders include physical therapy, which is the mainstay of treatment, combined with some sort of anti-inflammatory medication such as an anti-inflammatory pill, or possibly a steroid injection. This is successful for most patients with rotator cuff disease,” says Dr. Hughes. “If it gets more advanced and patients develop a full tear of the rotator cuff then frequently we’ll come to surgical treatment.” 

Surgery may be a good option if pain is getting in the way of doing your job or playing the sport you love. For example, if the pain is too great when you lift your arms over your head, surgery can help. If your tear happened because of an acute injury like an accident or fall, surgery may be the best fix.

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How Invasive Is Rotator Cuff Surgery?

There are three main ways surgeons repair rotator cuff tears:

  • Arthroscopic repair: This is the least invasive option, which involves just a small incision. That’s because the incision only has to be big enough to insert an arthroscope (a small camera). The surgeon uses images from the camera to perform the repair with very small surgical instruments.
  • Open repair: This is the most invasive option, in which surgeons use a traditional incision that’s usually several centimeters long.
  • Mini-open repair: This procedure is between open repair and arthroscopy in terms of invasiveness. It uses a blend of both techniques. The incision is bigger than arthroscopic repair, but not as big as traditional.

According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, patients rate all three repair methods the same for pain relief, strength improvement, and overall satisfaction.

How Much Pain Will I Be in After Surgery?

Your doctors and nurses will work with you to come up with a pain management plan. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are helpful for many people.

For those with more intense pain, a doctor may prescribe opioids — with caution. Opioids are habit-forming and have become a public health issue. That’s why, as soon as your pain lessens, you want to stop taking the opioids.

How Long Will I Have to Wear a Sling After Surgery?

After surgery, you have to allow time for the tendon to heal. This means keeping your arm immobilized. You’ll probably wear a sling for 4 to 6 weeks after surgery, depending on the severity of the tear. During that time, your surgeon may allow you to remove the sling for bathing and dressing.

Most people are comfortable performing light daily tasks (washing their face, eating, etc.) by 6 to 8 weeks.

How Long Will Rehab Take After Rotator Cuff Surgery?

Once your surgeon gives you the OK to move your arm, you can begin physical therapy. Your therapist will start by helping your body with various movements to increase your range of motion. Physical therapists call this passive exercise.

Within 4 to 6 weeks, you may be able to do exercises without help. The goal of these exercises is to start strengthening your arm again. Depending on how well you do, you’ll be doing an exercise program on your own within a few months.

When Will I Be Able to Move My Arm Normally Again?

Everyone has a slightly different timetable for recovery. One thing that makes a big difference is how diligent you are with physical therapy, so don’t slack off!

Most patients have their range of motion back within 4 to 6 months after surgery, but you’ll likely need to keep working to regain normal strength .

To learn more or schedule an appointment, please call 1-866-987-6784 or visit our website.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

About UPMC Orthopaedic Care

When you are dealing with bone, muscle, or joint pain, it can affect your daily life. UPMC Orthopaedic Care can help. As a national leader in advanced orthopaedic care, we diagnose and treat a full range of musculoskeletal disorders, from the acute and chronic to the common and complex. We provide access to UPMC’s vast network of support services for both surgical and nonsurgical treatments and a full continuum of care. Our multidisciplinary team of experts will work with you to develop the treatment plan that works best for you. Our care team uses the most innovative tools and techniques to provide better outcomes. We also are leaders in research and clinical trials, striving to find better ways to provide our patients care. With locations throughout our communities, you can find a provider near you.