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Using your shoulder after surgery

Alternate Names

Shoulder surgery - using your shoulder; Shoulder surgery - after

What to Expect at Home

You had surgery on your shoulder to repair a muscle, tendon, or cartilage tear. The surgeon may have removed damaged tissue. You will need to know how to take care of your shoulder as it heals, and how to make it stronger.

Self-care

After surgery, the arm on the side of your surgery will be in a sling or an immobilizer. Wear the device at all times, unless your doctor tells you do not have to.

  • It is okay to straighten your arm below your elbow and move your wrist and hand. But try to move your arm as little as possible.
  • Your arm should bend at a 90° angle (a right angle) at your elbow. The sling should support your wrist and hand so that they do not extend past the sling.
  • Move your fingers, hand, and wrist around 3 - 4 times during the day while they are in the sling. Each time, do this 10 - 15 times.
  • Begin taking your arm out of the sling and let it hang loosely by your side when your doctor tells you it is okay. Do this for longer periods at a time each day.

If you wear a shoulder immobilizer, you can loosen it only at the wrist strap and straighten your arm at your elbow. Be careful not to move your shoulder when you do this. Do not completely take off the immobilizer unless your doctor tells you it is okay.

If you had rotator cuff surgery, or other ligament or labral surgery, you need to be careful with your shoulder. Ask your doctor what arm movements are safe to do.

  • Do not move your arm away from your body or over your head.
  • When you sleep, raise your upper body up on pillows. Do not lie flat. You can also try sleeping on a reclining chair.
  • Do not use your arm or hand on the side that had surgery:
    • Do not lift anything with this arm or hand.
    • Do not lean on the arm or put any weight on it.
    • Do not bring objects toward your stomach by pulling in with this arm and hand.
    • Do not move or twist your elbow behind your body to reach for anything.

Your surgeon will refer you to a physical therapist to learn exercises for your shoulder.

  • You'll probably start with passive exercises. These are exercises the therapist will do with your arm. They help get the full movement back in your shoulder.
  • After that you will do exercises the therapist teaches you. These will help increase the strength in your shoulder and the muscles around your shoulder.

Consider making some changes around your home so it is easier for you to take care of yourself. Store everyday items you use in places you can reach easily. Keep things with you that you use a lot (such as your phone).

When to Call the Doctor

Call your doctor or nurse if you have:

  • Bleeding that soaks through your dressing and does not stop when you place pressure over the area
  • Pain that does not go away when you take your pain medicine
  • Swelling in your arm
  • Numbness or tingling in your fingers or hand
  • Redness, pain, swelling, or a yellowish discharge from any of the wounds
  • Fever higher than 101 °F

Also call the doctor if your hand or fingers are darker in color or feel cool to the touch.

References

Matsen III FA, Fehringer EV, Lippitt SB, Wirth MA, Rockwood Jr. CA. Rotator cuff. In: Rockwood CA Jr, Matsen FA III, Wirth MA, Lippitt SB, eds. The Shoulder. 4th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2009:chap 17.

Updated: 11/15/2012

C. Benjamin Ma, MD, Assistant Professor, Chief, Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service, UCSF Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, David R. Eltz, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.


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