Your doctor and his/her team may provide a lot of information about your upcoming shoulder surgery, but I’m here to give you the skinny on what it’s really like and to share tips that’ll help you survive — and thrive.
While I’m not a medical professional, I have had four — yes, four — surgeries on my right shoulder. The first was probably related to my tae kwon do days, the second and third were due to falls, while the fourth involved my 115 lb. dog pulling on her leash. Hard.
Let me tell you that having the surgery was no fun, but a month after my fourth go round, I can say that they’ve all been worth doing. I don’t want to do it again, mind you, but I don’t regret taking care of tears that wouldn’t have healed on their own.
So, what do you really need to know? Here’s my week-by-week look into what shoulder surgery recovery looks like. Keep in mind that I cleared all of my activity with my doctor before surgery, so please talk to your doctor about what you can do and when.
Surgery day: I make sure to wear something that’s super comfortable to the hospital or surgery center. After trial and error, I settled on a camisole with a shelf bra, a hoodie and yoga pants/sweat pants. I have to remove my top and bra for surgery. Afterward, I pull the cami on from my legs/hips with el husbando’s help; the straps are stretchy enough to go over the ginormous bandages on my newly stitched up shoulder.
I was handed socks with grippers and a lovely hair net, too. The nurse sticks a thermometer on my forehead. I look hot.
Stylin’ just before shoulder surgery.
I don’t do well with anesthesia, so I was nauseous and woozy after the procedure. El husbando tells me that I had complete conversations with the surgeons and surgery staff, but I have no memory of anything until the time when I was getting on the wheelchair to head home. I almost faint, so back to bed I go for a little bit. A little juice and I’m well enough to go home.
Back to the ginormous bandage. I was sent home with what they called an ice buddy, which holds ice that cycles through a hose and pad to help with pain management. You should know that you’ll either need a gazillion buckets of ice or frozen water bottles because you’ll wear the ice buddy 24 hours a day for the first three days.
I was also wearing the arm brace, which holds your arm in place so you don’t accidentally do something stupid.
Speaking of pain, follow your doc’s instructions, but mine told me to start taking my pain meds as soon as I got home. I set my phone alarm to make sure I don’t miss a dose. Yes, even at 2 a.m.
Don’t plan on doing much of anything this first day. My kids’ abuela lives with us, so she covered meals and snacks, which was a godsend.
The most exciting thing I do is watch a bunch of TV in bed, propped up on pillows. I nap a lot.
Days 2-3: Feel a bit better already, but still a little off. Probably a combination of the anesthesia and the meds. I spend most of my time in bed, watching TV. I read a little bit and feel well enough to check social media, but not much.
Switched to PJs with the tops that have buttons so I could put the sleeve over the injured arm much more easily.
Since you can’t get the bandages wet, showering is a pain in the behind and frowned upon. I use baby wipes the first day. On the second and third days, I cover up the bandages with a plastic garbage bag and take a quick shower.
The ice continues. The boredom starts to set in, but I don’t feel awesome, so it’s easy to just do a whole lot of nothing.
I switch to Tylenol on the evening of day 3 because I don’t like how I feel when I’m on meds. It wasn’t really enough for the pain, but I would rather deal with pain than side effects. Again, follow your doc’s orders on medication.
Day 4: Bandages can come off, finally. You will probably want someone to help. I remove them myself because I’m stubborn that way. I use baby wipes to clean around the incisions/stitches and under my right arm, but you still can’t get the stitches wet for the rest of the week. I once again cover my shoulder with a garbage bag and am finally able to wash my hair with just one arm.
My hair looks like a 3-year-old styled it, but it’s clean.
Tip: a washcloth comes in handy, especially when washing under your surgery arm. Trust me, you’ll definitely want to wash and dry well under that arm. It’s hard to use deodorant, but absolutely necessary.
At this stage, I still can’t use my surgery arm, so everything is difficult. But I start to feel a whole lot more awake. Still watch a lot of TV and do a whole lot of nothing.
I walk a mile on the treadmill and feel like I accomplished something.
Walking on the treadmill with the arm brace is ridiculous, but doctor approved.
Days 5-7: Pain is much better so it’s harder to keep from using that hand/arm, even with the sling. My doctor had me wear the thing all the time — including when sleeping. At this point, I have dreams of burning the sling, but I can appreciate it’s purpose.
I have my first post-op visit, have my stitches removed, get a script to start physical therapy and another one to go back to work.
I drive myself to the doctor’s office and feel comfortable enough to run an errand, but am exhausted and have to rest when I get home. Exhaustion is a common theme for the first month.
No stitches means that I can shower without a garbage bag. I still am washing one-handed and my hair still suffers, but it feels good to be completely clean.
Walk on the treadmill for one or two miles a couple of times this week, so I walk four miles outside on Saturday and feel really, really good.
I’m still home from work and spending a lot of time watching TV, reading and catching up on social media. Doing anything (including taking a shower) exhausts me. My pain is better, but my body is telling me to take it slow.
Highly recommend tops with buttons in the front to make dressing easier and nothing with zippers because you are still only able to use one arm. I fill my days with Mad Men reruns and running a handful of errands. By the weekend, I’m really looking forward to going back to work.
I have groceries delivered, which was a great help. The whole familia pitches in so I don’t have to do a whole lot around the house.
Physical therapy includes a lot of massage and checking my range of movement.
I get a haircut to help with the styling issue. It doesn’t help a whole lot, but I’m doing the best I can.
Walk a few times on the treadmill, between one and three miles. Very slowly and carefully, wearing my sling. On Saturday, walk five and a half miles and feel great. Walk three miles on trails on Sunday.
Monday: Holy mother of … it hurts. First day back to work is a disaster. I totally overdid it.
The laptop? Yeah, I used it way too much. Taking notes during meetings is almost impossible. I have no energy and can’t wait to get home. Once home, all I can do is sit with the ice buddy and think of ways to minimize the damage the following day.
I’m back at work, arm sling and all!
Just how much Aleve can a chica take safely? There’s not enough Aleve in the world. I go to bed early, but barely sleep. I’m regretting coming back to work.
Tuesday: I ask a colleague to print some materials for me so I don’t have to use my laptop. I grab a much smaller pad of paper and put it on my lap to take notes. I accept offers of help for even the most simple tasks like opening doors and getting my coat on and off. My friend brings me flowers, which lifts my spirits.
I don’t dream of popping Aleve like candy, but I come home to sit and ice again. I feel like I can do this.
Wake up in the middle of the night in terrible pain. Crap. Can’t sleep. Tomorrow will be better. Right? Right?
Wednesday and Thursday: I spend the days with awesome people. Have very productive meetings with partners. Spend very little time on my laptop and use my phone to answer any email.
Better. I still ice when I get home, but I get some relief and sleep a little better. I am so very tired. Did I mention I’m in pain and exhausted?
Friday: I work from home where I can sit in a recliner and ice my shoulder all day. Read a lot of printed materials, rely on my cell phone for any email and avoid the laptop as much as possible. Still get a full day’s worth of work in.
The pain is starting to lessen. Realize that I should have come back part-time for week three. Or not at all.
Weekend: Since I walked a few times on the treadmill (between one and three miles each) during the week, I walk six on Saturday and three on Sunday. Feel good.
Much better. I know to spend as little time as possible on the computer by using my phone for email, for reading documents and to call people instead of emailing.
Walking outside with my friend Michelle was just the boost I needed.
I also spend most of the week in the car, driving to towns over an hour away for meetings. Totally worth it and not too bad, given how miserable I was the previous week.
I ice my shoulder in the evening for the first two or three days, but don’t need to after that. The pain has lessened noticeably. It still hurts, mind you, but it’s not unbearable.
Physical therapy continues to be very mild. The therapist asks me to continue to wear the sling 100 percent of the time. I have visions of shooting the sling, setting it on fire and flinging it off the top of the Mackinac Bridge.
I pull Hal Higdon’s plan to walk a half marathon so that I have something to look forward to, even though I had to cancel my May half marathon under doctor’s orders.
At this stage, I still use my arm very little. When I do, I feel where the repairs were made and sometimes I have shooting pain. As much as I hate it, the sling prevents me from overusing the arm while also being a visual reminder to myself and others that I’m still not able to do all the things I’m used to doing.
It may be spring, but it’s still snowing in the Michigan tundra and I have to wear the arm brace over a puffy down coat. It’s about as awesome as it sounds.
I’m fortunate that I have a lot of support both at home and at work. I have learned to accept help and to adapt my expectations of my abilities given that I can only use one arm.
Getting dressed and doing my hair continue to be a challenge. I can put a shirt on (without buttons in the front) by slipping the sleeve into my right arm, then pulling it over my head and, finally, putting my left arm in the other sleeve. But I’ve gotten stuck a few times taking shirts and dresses off. I’ve learned to pull on the back of the shirt/dress behind my neck with my left hand until I have enough fabric to make it OK to pull out my right arm.
As someone who is so active, I’ve struggled with so much sitting around. But because I’ve done this three other times, I know that taking the time to heal now will mean that I’ll get to do all the things I want to do later.
I’m grateful that my physical therapist, surgeon and physician’s assistant have all told me it’s realistic for me to train for both the Woodstock 50K in September and Detroit Marathon in October.
So instead of bemoaning my lack of running now, I’m choosing to see this time as part of my long-term training plan. Because allowing my body to heal now will mean I will get to those finish lines.
Have you had surgery before? How did you cope? What did you do to get back to your previous activities? (You may have to click on “Continue Reading” to leave a comment.)