Rotator Cuff Repair: What to Expect at Home

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Your Recovery

The rotator cuff

Rotator cuff repair surgery is done to fix a tear in the rotator cuff. It can also include cleaning the space between the rotator cuff tendons and the shoulder blade. This is called subacromial smoothing.

You will feel tired for several days. Your shoulder will be swollen, and you may notice that your skin is a different colour near the cut (incision). Your hand and arm may also be swollen. This is normal and will start to get better in a few days.

It will be several months before you have complete use of your shoulder and arm. Once you have healed from surgery, you will need to build your strength and the motion of your joint with rehabilitation (rehab) exercises. In time, your shoulder will likely be stronger, less painful, and more flexible than it was before the surgery.

This care sheet gives you a general idea about how long it will take for you to recover. But each person recovers at a different pace. Follow the steps below to get better as quickly as possible.

How can you care for yourself at home?

Activity

  • Rest when you feel tired. Getting enough sleep will help you recover. Do not lie flat or sleep on your side. Raise your upper body on two or three pillows, or sleep in a reclining chair.
  • Try to walk each day. Start by walking a little more than you did the day before. Bit by bit, increase the amount you walk. Walking boosts blood flow and helps prevent pneumonia and constipation.
  • Your arm will be in a sling or other device to prevent it from moving for 4 to 8 weeks.
    • Always use the sling when you are walking or standing.
    • If you are sitting or lying down, you can loosen the sling, but do not remove it. This lets your elbow straighten without moving the shoulder. You can also support your arm on a pillow.
    • Remove the sling only to do prescribed exercises or to shower.
  • You will not have complete use of your affected arm for 3 to 4 months after surgery.
    • You can use your affected arm for writing, eating, or drinking, but move it only at the elbow or wrist. Do not use it for anything else except prescribed exercises until the sling has been removed.
    • When the sling has been removed, you can do activities that do not involve lifting, pushing, pulling, or carrying. You may not be able to do overhead lifting for 6 to 12 months.
  • If you have a desk job, you will probably be able to return to work or your normal routine in 1 to 2 weeks. If you have a more active job, you may be away from work for 3 to 4 months or longer. If you work at a job that involves heavy manual labour, lifting your arms above your head, or the use of heavy tools, you may have to think about making changes to your job.
  • If the rotator cuff repair was done arthroscopically, you can take a shower 48 to 72 hours after surgery. Remove the sling, and leave your arm by your side. To wash under your armpit, lean over and let the arm fall away from your body. Do not raise your arm. You may want to use a shower stool for a day or two.
  • If you had open surgery, do not shower until you see your doctor and he or she okays it. You can wash the incisions with regular soap and water.
  • Ask your doctor when you can drive again. This may take about 6 weeks or until you are no longer wearing the sling.

Diet

  • You can eat your normal diet. If your stomach is upset, try bland, low-fat foods like plain rice, broiled chicken, toast, and yogurt. Drink plenty of fluids.
  • You may notice that your bowel movements are not regular right after your surgery. This is common. Try to avoid constipation and straining with bowel movements. You may want to take a fibre supplement every day. If you have not had a bowel movement after a couple of days, ask your doctor about taking a mild laxative.

Medicines

  • Your doctor will tell you if and when you can restart your medicines. He or she will also give you instructions about taking any new medicines.
  • If you take blood thinners, such as warfarin (Coumadin), clopidogrel (Plavix), or aspirin, be sure to talk to your doctor. He or she will tell you if and when to start taking those medicines again. Make sure that you understand exactly what your doctor wants you to do.
  • Take pain medicines exactly as directed.
    • If the doctor gave you a prescription medicine for pain, take it as prescribed. Use pain medicine when you first notice pain, before it becomes severe. It is easier to prevent pain early than to stop it once it gets bad.
    • If you are not taking a prescription pain medicine, ask your doctor if you can take an over-the-counter medicine.
  • If your doctor prescribed antibiotics, take them as directed. Do not stop taking them just because you feel better. You need to take the full course of antibiotics.
  • If you think your pain medicine is making you sick to your stomach:
    • Take your medicine after meals (unless your doctor has told you not to).
    • Ask your doctor for a different pain medicine.

Incision care

  • If you had arthroscopic surgery, you may remove the bandage over your cut (incision) 24 to 48 hours after the surgery. Keep the bandage clean and dry.
  • If you had open surgery, do not remove your bandage until you see your doctor and he or she okays it. Keep the bandage clean and dry.
  • If your incision is open to the air, keep the area clean and dry.
  • If you have strips of tape on the incision, leave the tape on for a week or until it falls off.

Exercise

  • Shoulder rehabilitation is a series of exercises you do after your surgery. This helps you get back your shoulder's range of motion and strength. You will work with your doctor and physiotherapist to plan this exercise program. Rehab may not start until 6 weeks after the surgery. To get the best results, you need to do the exercises correctly and as often and for as long as your doctor tells you.

Ice

  • To reduce swelling and pain, put ice or a cold pack on your shoulder for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. Do this every 1 to 2 hours. Put a thin cloth between the ice and your skin.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse call line if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

When should you call for help?

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You passed out (lost consciousness).
  • You have severe trouble breathing.
  • You have sudden chest pain and shortness of breath, or you cough up blood.

Call your doctor or nurse call line now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have numbness, tingling, or a bluish colour in your fingers or hand.
  • You have severe nausea or vomiting.
  • You have pain that does not go away after you take pain medicine.
  • You have loose stitches, or your incision comes open.
  • Your incision bleeds through your first bandage or is still bleeding 3 days after your surgery.
  • You have signs of infection, such as:
    • Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness.
    • Red streaks leading from the incision.
    • Pus draining from the incision.
    • A fever.

Watch closely for any changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor or nurse call line if:

  • You do not have a bowel movement after taking a laxative.

Where can you learn more?

Go to https://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

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