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How Painful is Rotator Cuff Surgery?

Posted by James Aspell | Jun 24, 2022 | 0 Comments

Rotator Cuff Surgery Pain

Rotator cuff around top of arm bone at shoulder, with close-up of rotator cuff tendons and muscles.

Your Recovery

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. Unfortunately, rotator cuff repair surgery can have a fairly painful recovery process.  Your surgeon will give you medicine to help alleviate the worst pain and allow you to get back to normal function as quickly as possible.

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. When 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.

How can you care for yourself at home?


  • 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 several weeks.
    • Always use the sling when you walk or stand.
    • If you sit or lie down, you can loosen the sling, but don't 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 a few 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 don't involve lifting, pushing, pulling, or carrying. You may not be able to do overhead lifting for several months.
  • If you have a desk job, you may be able to go back 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 a few months. 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 you had arthroscopic surgery, 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 your doctor okays it. You can wash the incisions with regular soap and water.
  • Ask your doctor when you can drive again. This may take several weeks or until you are no longer wearing the sling.


  • 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.


  • Your doctor will tell you if and when you can restart your medicines. You will also be given instructions about taking any new medicines.
  • 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's easier to prevent pain early than to stop it after 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 your doctor 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.


  • 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. Shoulder rehab may not start until a few 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.


  • 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. If your doctor recommended cold therapy using a portable machine, follow the instructions that came with the machine.

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.

If your Rotator Cuff injury was occurred at work, or was caused by the negligence of a third party, you may wish to discuss the situation with an experienced  personal injury attorney.

About the Author

James Aspell

Principal since August 1, 2006 James F. Aspell is the principal and managing attorney of the firm which he started in 2006 following 20 years of litigation practice in a mid -size firm in Hartford, Connecticut. Jim focuses his practice in the areas of worker's compensation and personal injury l...


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