Rehab After Rotator Cuff Surgery

If you're feeling pain from a torn rotator cuff, you know it can be every bit as bad as it sounds. It can even jolt you awake from a sound sleep.

Most rotator cuff tears can be treated without surgery. But sometimes surgery is the only way to strengthen the upper arm and free a patient from pain.

Sometimes, surgery is done right after an injury. Other times, surgery may be a last resort after other treatments have failed.

It's understandable to fear the prospect of surgery. But it should come as a relief to know that the procedure is straightforward. Many patients feel that rehabilitation and recovery is more challenging.

Orthopedic doctor has a senior male patient lift his hand over his shoulder, testing his range of motion in his arm. - stock photo

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This article explains what to expect as you heal and recover from rotator cuff surgery. It's a four-phase process that can take from four to six months, sometimes longer.

Day of Surgery

Rotator cuff surgery is an outpatient procedure. Overnight stays in the hospital are generally unnecessary.

The surgical procedure usually takes a few hours, depending on the extent of work needed to repair the torn tendons.

After surgery, your arm will be placed in a sling. A sling that holds the arm slightly away from the side (an abduction sling) is generally recommended after rotator cuff repair surgery.

A sling of this type holds the tendons in a more relaxed position. You probably will be glad you have it.

You will remain at the outpatient center until your pain is under control.

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Click Play to Learn About the Shoulder Surgery Rehab Timeline

This video has been medically reviewed by Oluseun Olufade, MD.

The First Days After Surgery

Expect that the first days after rotator cuff surgery will be focused on controlling your pain. Your healthcare provider should prescribe medication to help.

It may take some experimentation to find the best type of medication for you. Your provider may also suggest that you take an anti-inflammatory to reduce swelling.

You (or your caregiver) can also expect to make multiple trips to the freezer for ice packs. Icing the shoulder plays a crucial role in pain control.

Do your best to "stay ahead" of the pain rather than "chase it." In other words, take pain medication at the earliest sign of pain—not after the pain becomes severe.

Sleeping at Night

Sleeping after shoulder surgery may be your biggest challenge. Even a moderate ache in the shoulder can prevent a good night's sleep.

Many people sleep in a semi-upright position after rotator cuff surgery. In this case, sleeping in a recliner can be ideal.

If you don't have a recliner, ask your caregiver to gather a mass of pillows so you can create your own puffy backrest. Sleep sitting upright with your elbow pointed downward.

Ask your physician whether taking a sleep aid is a good choice for you. Sleep will be vital to your recovery. It will give you the strength you need to face the daily challenges ahead.

Recovery Phase 1: Passive Motion

The first phase of recovery is passive motion only. This means that only a physician or physical therapist should move your shoulder for you.

Passive motion also means that the rotator cuff muscles and tendons do no work on their own. The shoulder moves without placing any tension on the repair.

This phase may last up to six weeks, depending on the size of the rotator cuff tear and the strength of the repair itself.

It may feel "funny" to have a therapist move your shoulder for you. But it should be helpful: Toward the end of this phase, the therapist can explain how to move your own shoulder without contracting the rotator cuff muscles.

Keep the Incision Dry

Keep your incision dry. And do not apply any creams or ointments to it as it heals.

Recovery Phase 2: Active Motion

The active motion phase begins when the tendons heal enough for you to start moving your arm on your own.

A physical therapist may work with you to strengthen your muscles, reduce shoulder stiffness, and improve your arm control. Expect to do home exercises to increase your range of motion, too.

The exercises likely won't involve any added resistance during this phase. This can be a long phase—taking up to 12 weeks from the day of surgery.

Recovery Phase 3: Strengthening

The strengthening phase of recovery is the most important.

It may help to remember how the injury, surgery, and early phases of recovery have weakened your muscles. Now you must work to strengthen them so you can return to your normal activities.

Many patients are happy to know that they do not need to lift heavy weights in this phase. A skilled therapist can show you how to use resistance bands or light weights to strengthen your arm and still get an excellent workout.

Recovery Phase 4: Full Activity

Full recovery after rotator cuff surgery often takes four to six months. Complications can extend this timeline.

Recovery time often depends on:

  • The size of the rotator cuff tear
  • The severity of the tear
  • The outcome of the surgery
  • The patient's commitment to rehabilitation

Keep in mind that there is no one-size-suits-all treatment plan. Everyone moves through these phases at a different pace.

Your physician should play an active role in your recovery. Place a call when you need help, because a delay could set your recovery timeline back.

Discuss any specific questions you have about your rehab plan with your surgeon.

Summary

No one would ever say that recovering from rotator cuff surgery is easy. It often takes about six months. Expect to go through four phases: passive motion, active motion, strengthening, and full activity. Your exercises will increase in intensity in each phase. Take it slow and steady and you'll soon feel like yourself again.

A Word From Verywell

Remember that this is a general outline of the phases that follow rotator cuff surgery. Every patient, every tear, and every surgery are a little different.

It can be tempting to compare your progress with that of friends, family members, or other patients you meet at therapy. But their recovery plan and progress may be very different from yours. So try not to compare notes.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long is recovery from rotator cuff surgery?

    Many patients return to full strength and have complete range of motion four to six months after surgery. Recovery can be a slow process, so following a physician's care routine is crucial.

  • How long does rotator cuff surgery take?

    Rotator cuff surgery usually takes a few hours. More severe cases take longer. Most often, it's an outpatient procedure, meaning you can have surgery and go home the same day.

  • How do I avoid reinjuring my shoulder after rotator cuff surgery?

    Follow your doctor's instructions for a smooth recovery. And avoid driving, pushing, pulling, or lifting until your doctor says it's safe.

  • Is rotator cuff surgery painful?

    The surgery itself should not be painful. You may be put to sleep with general anesthesia. Or you could remain awake with local anesthesia. Either way, you should feel no pain during the procedure. For some time after surgery, you may be sore. But your healthcare provider should prescribe pain medication to help manage it.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Rotator cuff tears: surgical treatment options.

  2. Hyderabad Shoulder Clinic. Do's and don'ts after rotator cuff surgery.

  3. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Rotator cuff and shoulder conditioning program.

  4. Abtahi AM, Granger EK, Tashjian RZ. Factors affecting healing after arthroscopic rotator cuff repairWorld J Orthop. 2015;6(2):211–220. doi:10.5312/wjo.v6.i2.211

  5. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Rotator cuff repair.