What to expect if you’re having shoulder surgery

by lachicaruns on

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.

Week 1

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.

Week 2

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.

Week 3 

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.

Week 4

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.

Lessons learned

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.)

Written by: lachicaruns

My name is Gisgie. It's pronounced geese (like the birds) and gee (like the letter). Now that we've met, I'm glad you're here. I'm an injury-prone runner who manages to find reasons to keep coming back to the road despite ongoing challenges. Most recently, I've struggled with piriformis syndrome. I'm currently winning. Most days.



I totally co-sign everything about getting back after surgery. Thankful you are listening to your body and resting as needed! Looking forward to our time on the trails!


Just fyi, I solved my own hand/arm/leash-pulling issues by buying online a leash that comes with a waist belt for the human. I wear it low on my hips.


That sounds like a great idea. I, however, don’t plan to take my favorite 115 lb. dog on any more walks by myself.

Jeanne B.

Great advice all around! I bought an ice machine on Amazon prior to surgery, it helps a ton. What I found useful was getting / staying in good shape prior to surgery, it motivated me to get out and walk like you did afterward, instead of being grumpy that I was stuck in my recliner in front of a TV. I’m three months post-op (very damaged shoulder) was so worried about it, but and I’m so happy I finally got it done!


Wow, that’s great to hear, Jeanne. It can be traumatic, but a year post-op, I am glad I did it (even if it was for a fourth time!) because the healing and recovery was so much better this time around.


10 days after my surgery still in pain, haven’t read about night time sleeping with the sling on such a most discomfort thing night and morning worst part of this

Debi Lee

I’m interested in which shoulder surgery you had. I had to have a reverse total joint replacement with major repair to the rotator cuff. I was sternly warned not to get on a treadmill so I walked around the small apt and driveway. It’s now almost week 6, and I am hoping to rid myself of this red headed stepchild aka as the sling, but also concerned I may try doing too much unconsciously w/o it. PT is going good, but then I hear phase 2 will be a bish!!😂 Thanks for sharing your experience. Oh and I’ve been off all prescription pain meds since week 3 and using Tylenol arthritis. Not bad for a 68 year old, eh?


This blog sounds exactly like my experience! Only difference is that end of post-op wk 2 I started having muscle spasms in my neck and trap area so had to go back to surgeon and he did some cortisone injections which helped. Still having a hard time sleeping but it is gradually improving. It’s so hard to “rest” when you are such an active person! Reading this made me feel so much better about my recovery!


Absolute worst pain I’ve ever experienced.
Just had surgery 10/30.
The bone cut area and nerve pain shooting down to my elbow.

My hip replacement is next. I’ve heard it’s not as painful.


I have dominate arm shoulder surgery in 2 weeks. Trying to figure out more on what clothing to use dressing on my own after a few days. It will be Christmas season and probably just down to freezing a few days. No one says but it seems like long skirts w/ elastic waist would be easier than even big gym pants? Not sure about nicer tops that Velcro doesn’t snag and no helpers? Plan to decorate for Christmas beforehand. Wondering what foods are easy to do one handed. How to open cans? Wash dishes and I guess driving works in 2 weeks if off big meds? When can you sign checks And credit slips?and write ok with sling on?


Hi Sal, how did things go? I’m scheduled for January 24th. Right shoulder, dominant hand. I’ve made a Poncho to wear outdoors through the winter, as I’m in cold Massachusetts. I’m planning on food that won’t have to be cut up. I have a very comfortable recliner that I plan on living in for a few days/weeks. Hoping to go out to the mall to do some walking. Also have set up all my bill payments online, to be automatically paid.


Suggestions for dominate arm rotator cuff surgery- front close bra or no bra
Pull on elastic pants or skirts
Bidet with controls on opposite side from injured shoulder— this has been a life-saver
Button front blouses
Ice bags made from 1 cup rubbing alcohol/ 2 cups water in a gallon sized zip lock freezer bag. Get all the air out, zip it, then put inside another gallon freezer bag. Freeze. It becomes a very cold slush that will conform to your shoulder and give much relief. Just be sure to place a small kitchen towel between the ice bag and your skin. Stays cold a really long time. Best Ice pack I’ve found.


I had arthroscopic surgery yesterday. Not on my dominant arm, but I practiced at night with a winter scarf as a sling! I work in a factory on 3rd shift. Haven’t been to work in a week! My first postoperative visit is today! Physical therapy starts tomorrow. I wear a small so I went to Walmart and purchased men’s flannel shirts, pullover shirts and zip up hoodies! Won’t be able to go to work early because of the nature of my job. I love the article on Pinterest that showed me how to get dressed after shoulder surgery! A freakin awesome article! It actually works! I’m loving the time off because I’m a 64 year old workaholic! I Hahahahahahahaha! No plans to retire!


Hope your.recovery goes well…I had both shoulders donr within the last few months..what a journey..had mych pain with the.right.shoulder…not as much with the left…important to keep up with therapy…was so thankful for my husband who had to be my nurse!!…..and for pain meds Hallelujah!!!.It took me 4 months therapy with each surgery..but full recovery I beliwve was longer….for me to be relatively pain free..although bvb wven now if I do too much..i experience some pain.


I’m just wondering why you aren’t usinn the sling the way my orthopedic surgeon showed me how to and how the manual says to ? Just wondering cause you’ve been through it a few times


I am wearing it how I was told to use it. Maybe different slings require different positioning? Not really sure. Hope you’re healing well!


I’m almost 8 weeks post rotator cuff, biceps tenodesis, distal clavicle excision, subacromial decompression. YOWSAH is this deltoid pain ever gona go away! Have been doing a little walking but haven’t make it to the treadmill. I’m an OR nurse so still weeks before I return to work!!! Impatient big time!!!


Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I am schedule to have arthroscopic surgery later this year. I’m very nervous and worried about the surgery. Im worried because I have. 3 year old and a 14 year. My 3 year goes to daycare but when she gets home she wants for me to catty her or play outside with her. I know I will not be able to do that at least for a few weeks but I do not know how she is going to react. I’m also worried because I have been told numerous times that I can not return to work with any restrictions. I have about 15 weeks of leave but only allowed to take 12 weeks, anything after that my job will not be protected. How long did it take for you to be able to drive, type and pick up your children?
Sorry for the long comment.

Trish Rumsey

Thank you for your detailed account of your surgery! I’m having rotator cuff surgery in 3 weeks! I’m trying to plan ahead! I bought an inexpensive recliner…since I really don’t have room for a bigger nice one! The surgery is on my right (dominant) shoulder! I found some great ideas on Pintrest regarding shirts! I have some older Scrubs, that I think I’m going to cut down the seams and add velcro! My girlfriend told me that her husband used tank tops! She cut the seam and added velcro! I’m loving the ideas!

I will be bringing home an ice bucket machine, so I’ve been told! I’m hoping NOT to be in too much pain, since I’m a Personal Trainer, and self employed! No disability insurance, No income! I’m still working out 4-5 days per week, trying to keep some strenght in my right arm! I know that when this is done, I won’t be doing any lifting for up to 6 months! Talk about going insane!!! LOL!! Looks like I’ll be driving myself to my first PT appointment, 5 days Post Op! I’m hoping that I will be able to handle it, since it’s a good distance away!!

Thanks again for sharing! It really helps put things into perspective much more!


Need information about a reverse right shoulder
Replacement!! Having right shoulder surgery.
Right handed. Will 5 day and night be enough help. I’m 82 yrs, Heal very fast as I just had two hip surgeries. Walked up stairs after both surgeries. Any help will be appreciated.

Nicolella Williams

I’ve had right shoulder replacement, dominant hand, absolutely no pain after the op. I had a sling for 6 weeks. Physio was painful I have rheumatoid arthritis, so I’m used to pain. Then I have a hip replacement, absolutely no pain, recovery was quick, I was determined to walk. And 2 weeks ago I had a left shoulder replacement, absolutely no pain and the weird thing is I have a lot more movement, I used the same surgeon as my first shoulder replacement, he got serious new skills. Just a side note my arthritis eats away at my cartilage, that’s why I have to have surgery, because then it’s bone on bone, which is painful. I encourage anyone who needs a replacement to have one, your quality of life improves, and your outlook changes because now you have less or no pain.

Nicolella Williams

About a reverse shoulder replacement, I am not a medical expert, but I was given the option of having a reverse shoulder replacement, I declined because if your doctor is honest he will tell you that once you have the reverse shoulder replacement they can’t do another replacement on that arm in 10 or 20 or even 30 years time. And for me with arthritis under 50 years, God willing I need to keep my options open, but this is a personal choice, I know that recovering time with the reverse is quicker.


Hi! My mom (72) is having reverse shoulder surgery. Do you have any advice on clothing or what would be best for her to wear after surgery and recovery?


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