I am 3 weeks and 2 days post shoulder surgery, and I am ready to share my experience. In hindsight, it probably would’ve been better to journal all of this, but I’ll do my best to remember. With all of the googling I’ve done over the past month or so, I’m sure there are others out there who want a first-hand experience and not just a medical website, so here’s my story!
Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor. Please don’t use my experience with shoulder surgery to diagnose yourself. I am in no way responsible for anything you decide to do or not do after reading this. I’m just sharing my personal experience, so don’t sue me. I don’t make enough money for that.
If you aren’t familiar with me or my blog, I am a 39 year old mom of 4. I am currently a blogger, photographer, social media marketer (I wear so many hats!). But previously I was a personal trainer and group fitness instructor. I taught Les Mills BODYPUMP, Insanity, PiYo, Spin, and a variety of other classes for a few years.
I had my 3rd baby when I was 36, and noticed some shoulder discomfort from time to time after I had her. It would always go away so I didn’t think much of it. I just figured it was a mix of getting older and maybe normal exercise pains.
Then I got pregnant with my 4th baby in 2017. I was still teaching BODYPUMP (a barbell class) at the gym 1-2 days a week, trying to keep my fitness up as long as possible. In March 2018, right when I turned 38, I decided to stop teaching. It was difficult for me to do a lot of the exercises, and my shoulder pain was back. Again, I didn’t think much of it because at that point everything hurt – my shoulder, my back, my pelvis… And I knew from experience that my joints were very loose/mobile during pregnancy and breastfeeding, so I assumed it was a pain that would go away after pregnancy.
My son was born in June 2018. No more babies! But I breastfed for 6 weeks and he nursed a LOT. Constantly. I wasn’t comfortable sitting up and holding him to nurse all day long, so I did a lot of side-lying nursing. I also nursed him in bed at night (we co-slept for a while), which meant more nursing on my side with my arm straight out above his head.
Pretty sure that was the icing on the cake for my shoulder.
I finally decided to see an orthopedic doctor in September 2018. My shoulder seemed fine most of the day, but there were times where I knew something was wrong. If I was lying on my side in bed, I couldn’t reach behind me with my left arm and then bring it back forward in front of me. If I slept on my back, I was unable to lift my left arm without picking it up with my right hand. You know the Baby Shark song? I couldn’t do the Daddy Shark motion with my left arm. I could only hold that arm stable and move my right arm up and down.
It was time to figure out what was wrong.
I went to a doctor in Denver, Colorado and told him about my pain. He had me do some arm movements to see what I was capable of. I could do most of them with no pain, but a few were uncomfortable. I mentioned that my physical therapist thought I’d torn my labrum, but he didn’t seem convinced. After an X-ray, I was diagnosed with biceps tendonitis and was sent home with instructions to continue physical therapy and take 800 mg of ibuprofen twice a day for a month.
Guess what didn’t help? Any of that.
Thank you, next.
I went to another doctor in October 2018 for a second opinion. My oldest daughter had broken her foot and was seeing an orthopedist in a different practice anyway, so I made myself an appointment for a shoulder specialist. He also took an X-ray of my shoulder, but then ordered an MRI. He scoffed at the previous doctor for not getting an MRI for a better picture of the soft tissues in my shoulder.
The MRI showed swelling/inflammation in the shoulder joint and some arthritis. According to what he saw, my shoulder was otherwise fine. He also concluded I had biceps tendonitis. Since physical therapy and ibuprofen weren’t working, he recommended a cortisone shot in my shoulder. Two of them. At that point he could’ve recommended anything and I would’ve tried it. I just didn’t want to hurt.
And while the shot wasn’t comfortable, it wasn’t awful. And it WORKED.
For a little while.
The REAL Diagnosis
The cortisone shot kept my shoulder pain away for a while. A couple of months even. It felt so “normal” that I started exercising again. Just light weights, nothing heavier than 10 pounds. Then when it felt ok, I added in some planks and some pushups on my knees. I had been doing stabilizing exercises at PT anyway, so I thought if I strengthened my shoulder muscles it would help.
Well… you can guess what happened next.
The pain returned. Slowly at first, then I was right back where I was before. We were in the process of selling our home, so I didn’t want to get involved with treatment right away. I took ibuprofen when I needed it, thinking that removing the inflammation would help my shoulder to heal some.
We left Colorado in May 2019 and moved to Georgia. I could use my arm, loading furniture and heavy boxes, carrying my kids when they needed me. But I couldn’t use my left arm in many positions. My range of motion was limited. Washing my hair was uncomfortable.
Before we even closed on our new home in July, I saw a doctor in Atlanta. I told him what my previous two doctors had done and what their diagnosis was. He asked if the MRI had been done with contrast (dye injected into my shoulder). Um, nope. He explained that without contrast, there was no way to clearly see if my labrum was actually torn.
You’ve got to be kidding me.
I was so flipping mad. After a whole year of dealing with this pain, I learned that my previous providers hadn’t thoroughly checked to find out what was wrong.
Two weeks before surgery – easy to see the muscle loss in my left arm.
So of course I consented to another MRI, with contrast this time. And as expected, it showed a tear in my labrum. TWO TEARS. It was difficult to tell from the image, but my doctor also said that I may have damage to my biceps tendon and my rotator cuff. He discussed options with me and said that he would be able to determine exactly what I needed once he saw what was going on inside of my shoulder.
I had exhausted all non-invasive options and arthroscopic shoulder surgery was my best option at this point. The success rate for someone my age was good, and he recommended moving forward.
So shoulder surgery was scheduled. And I kinda freaked out, but I knew it was for the best. I had so much anxiety over my babies and how they (and I) would handle this, but at the reassurance of my husband I moved forward with the plan.
I prepared as much as I could in advance. Both of the babies were enrolled in daycare since I knew I wasn’t supposed to pick them up post-surgery. I was told I would be in a sling for 4-6 weeks and recovery would be closer to 4 months. It broke my heart to think I could hold my kids for months! But their mama needed to heal so she could play with them again.
We didn’t have a recliner yet in the new house, so I bought a super affordable one on amazon. It was no La-Z-boy but it was soft and comfy enough for sleeping in while I recovered! (Here’s the recliner if you want to see – affiliate link, but I would totally recommend it regardless.)
Surgery day came and my husband drove me to the surgery center. It was Monday, August 26, 2019. We checked in around 12:30 PM and I’m pretty sure I was home by about 5:00 PM, just to give an idea of how long it takes. Honestly though I was high on pain meds so I don’t remember exactly.
I thought I’d make the doctors (and myself) laugh. Not sure if they share my humor.
The shoulder surgery itself was a blur. I remember getting checked in and scrubbed up for surgery. I had to wear compression stockings on both legs, along with some compression pumps that are to prevent DVT. One nurse scrubbed my shoulder area (even down to my nipple for some reason) with betadine while another nurse got my IV going.
The anesthesiologist introduced himself and started some meds in my IV. They burned my hand a bit but I began to feel more calm. I was wheeled into the operating room. I had to move myself onto the operating table, which is always super awkward especially when you’re feeling loopy and your IV hurts.
Then the anesthesiologist came back and shot pure fire into my vein. I cried. Legit SOBBED. The last thing I remember saying was, “I really want to like you but RIGHT NOW I DON’T!” And then I was out.
Shoulder Surgery Recovery
My husband had talked with my doctor while I was in recovery and got the surgery details – I’d had two shoulder labrum tears that were repaired. I also had a very frayed biceps tendon that needed to be fixed. They performed a biceps tenodesis – where they cut the biceps tendon at the shoulder joint and reattached it to my humerus (upper arm bone). This allows me to still use my biceps muscle and results in a more “attractive” arm muscle than if they had not reattached the tendon and just let it go inside my arm. They also removed some inflamed bursa (I had bursitis) and shaved down some bone spurs. Luckily my rotator cuff looked amazing and had no damage!
Wear a big, stretchy shirt to surgery. Also, I have no memory of taking this selfie.
I vaguely remember getting into my car and my husband driving me home. I was starving and couldn’t believe he went to the Chick-Fil-A closest to our house instead of the first one we passed. Once home, I went upstairs and immediately got in the recliner and napped. I was given a nerve block in my shoulder which made my entire left arm numb, all the way down to my fingers. It was an absolute blessing.
Thanks to the nerve block, I felt nothing for over 12 hours. They told me once it starts wearing off (before the numbness is completely gone) to start taking my pain medication. At bedtime I could start wiggling my fingers again, so I took two Percocet. I didn’t know how quickly the numbness would disappear and I wanted to get ahead of any pain.
Sleeping in the recliner wasn’t super comfortable but thanks to the drugs I didn’t move much. I also found that sleep came pretty easily. The next morning, my arm was still slightly numb but it was wearing off. I was surprised that I didn’t really feel much pain, but I thought maybe the nerve block was still taking it away.
Surgery bandages off. Gross.
Then the nerve block was gone…
I was told to shower after 24 hours, so I prepared for that. Or at least I tried to. Getting undressed was difficult. Taking off the sling wasn’t easy, taking off my clothes was even more difficult, and removing the bandages made me cringe. My husband covered my shoulder (I had staples on my incisions) with plastic wrap and I showered the best I could. I thought he might need to wash my hair, but I found I was able to do it one handed. Smart of me to cut my hair into a bob before surgery, whoop!
My thick surgery bandages were replaced by bandaids. I cut up the left side of one of my husband’s white t-shirts because putting my arm in a shirt wasn’t possible. I only wore baggy shorts with elastic waist and I didn’t attempt a bra. Sling was worn constantly. The second night I definitely felt more discomfort, but after 2 Percocets I was out. And I only took 2 because I was scared. I probably would’ve been fine taking just one but I didn’t want to end up in too much pain and then struggle to make it go away.
Lots of bruising and some swelling. The bandaids irritated my skin so I took them off. Biceps incision hurt the most.
My doctor wanted me to start trying to raise my arm over my head, per my post-op instructions. That was a big nope. I couldn’t even use my right arm to move my left. Trying to wash under my left arm in the shower was so painful that I had to take deep breaths. I got a little nauseous every time I showered and dressed because my shoulder hurt so much.
Physical Therapy after Shoulder Surgery
My surgery was on Monday and I was in physical therapy on Thursday. My doctor felt that beginning PT as soon as possible would help me recover better. I was really worried that it would be painful, but it was actually way better than I expected! My therapist only worked on passive motion, which was a relief. She had me lie down on a table and gently moved my arm to see what my initial range of motion looked like. There was some wiggling of my arm to release the muscle tightness, but overall it was very easy.
I was also off narcotics by day 3 or 4, only taking one pill at night out of caution. I took Tylenol or Motrin for mild discomfort as needed, but not often. There was definitely more tiredness than usual in the first week and I had to nap during the day, which I attribute to my body healing. However, after the first 4 days or so I felt like moving around so I did what I could as my body would tolerate activity.
The second week (one week post surgery) my physical therapy was a little more involved, but I was responding to it very well. In addition to the passive stretches she did to my arm, I was taught to do very minimal exercises and stretches at home. Wrist flexion/extension with a 2 pound dumbbell, shoulder rolls, scapular retractions, and pendulum circles. At this point I was not attempting any other exercises at home, other than light housework when I felt ok.
My staples were removed by the doctor at my post op checkup, 10 days after surgery. I was given the all clear to drive with my right arm as long as I kept my left arm in my sling and didn’t use it. (Spoiler alert: I hate my sling.) Physical therapy then added onto my current exercises with some assisted stretches. I used a long stick to gently externally rotate my bent arm, then press my arm up to the side (abduction) and up to the front (front raise).
I have made sure to do my stretches and exercises at home almost every single day. There are some days that have felt like bad days. My shoulder sometimes aches and feels stiff and I get a little discouraged. I can almost always correlate increased discomfort to overdoing it and using my arm too much. If I rest (and put that stupid sling back on), my soreness subsides and I feel good again.
3 Weeks Post Op
Monday marked three weeks since my shoulder surgery. Tuesday (yesterday) I went to physical therapy and measured my range of motion. With assistance from my stick, I’m able to externally rotate my arm to about 45 degrees (my goal is 90 degrees). Side raise is about 170 degrees (next to my head) and my front raise is right at 180 degrees. I’m now working on pulling my stick up behind my back – that helps me prep for fastening my bra strap behind me! I’ve also started using my therapy stick to push my arm back behind me in a sort of rowing motion.
Shoulder scars are barely visible but the biceps tenodesis scar will take longer to heal.
(To be clear – my physical therapist says my shoulder surgery recovery is much better than what would be expected. My mobility is better than average, and not everyone recovers as easily as I have so far. So if you aren’t here yet, don’t be discouraged! Everyone recovers at their own pace.)
I can’t wait to be cleared to start stretching a little more aggressively (even though it may hurt!) and eventually add in some resistance training shoulder surgery exercises to build strength. Due to the biceps tenodesis, I have been instructed to not hold more than 1-2 pounds in my left hand to prevent tearing my tendon from where it was attached to the bone.
A few days ago I started adding in some light exercise. Walking up and down the stairs at home. Doing a few squats, lunges, and calf raises while I do my shoulder stretches. Today I walked almost 2 miles and then did some dumbbell exercises with my right arm only. It feels good to get moving, so I’m going to do what I can as long as it doesn’t involve my left arm. (Fitness plan to come soon…)
Don’t Tell My Doctor, but…
Ok, honestly I’m the worst patient ever. I try to follow doctor’s orders. I DO. But I also have a life and sometimes what the doctor tells me to do just isn’t feasible.
So while your doctor will tell you what he/she thinks is best for recovery, I’m going to share with you what I ACTUALLY did. However, make your own choices. These aren’t recommendations, just transparency.
- I was told to wear my compression stockings until my post-op appointment on day 10. I wore them for 2 days and they stunk. Threw them in the wash when I took them off to shower. Decided to only wear them at night. Learned they were best worn during the day and off at night and said forget it. They lasted 4-5 days at most then I quit. I was pretty active during the day at that point so I didn’t worry about sitting for long periods of time.
- Supposed to ice my shoulder 3-4 times a day. For the first couple of days, I iced 2-3 times a day, then iced after PT and again in the evenings for a couple days, then stopped. Only got ice after PT sessions after that.
- Wear my sling for 6 weeks…. yeah no. I wore it (with the pillow attached) for maybe a week. After that, I started removing it during the day while the kids were at school. By day 10, I rarely wore it unless I was going to the store, driving, or if it ached. At 3 weeks post surgery, I almost never know where it is.
- Someone recommended sleeping in the recliner for 4-6 weeks. That lasted 3 nights tops. I felt better propped up in bed with pillows after that. After the first 7-10 days, I was sleeping in bed, flat, with no sling. Truth: night is when it hurts the most. I wake up stiff and achy and sometimes my shoulder burns. But once I’m up and moving, it’s fine. Likely still some inflammation and stiffness just from being still all night.
- Not supposed to hold anything heavier than 1-2 pounds for 6 weeks… Ok, I’m a mom. I’m honestly trying to be careful. I don’t use my left arm to carry groceries or a laundry basket or anything like that. But my babies have been sick. I will squat down and scoop up the little one with my right arm, but my left arm has to be there to support him if he wiggles. And a few times I’ve had to put him down in his bed. It doesn’t feel good and I don’t do it often, but it has happened.
Moms just don’t get time off when babies are sick.
Now while I haven’t told my doctor about all of this, I have been honest with my physical therapist. She sees me twice a week and she would be able to tell if something was wrong anyway. I’ve mentioned that I had to hold my son and I’ve told her about some aches and discomfort I’ve experienced from that. Most of the time if my shoulder hurts, it’s on the weekend when they are home with me all day, so it’s pretty clear that’s the reason.
Her response is for me to just be cautious and not overdo it. She also said I would have to have a major accident to really cause damage at this point (a fall, lifting something really heavy with both arms or just my left arm, etc), and I would know it if I hurt myself. Because I have some aches one day and then feel better the next day, I’m probably doing ok and it’s just normal pains of recovery.
Questions about Shoulder Surgery?
This is a lot of information, and I applaud you if you’ve read this far! I wanted to be as detailed as possible because it seems there aren’t all that many personal stories about shoulder surgery out there. At least not many that I could find while I was anxiously Googling before my surgery. I hope this has been helpful if you’re considering shoulder surgery or if you’re recovering and wondering what to expect.
Again, I’m no doctor but I’d be happy to chat with you if you have any questions about shoulder surgery or SLAP repair recovery! Feel free to drop a comment here or connect with me on social media.