Some surgeries that we perform as orthopaedic surgeons take months to heal. Patients are often frustrated by the slow recovery process. Sometimes they try to do something with their injured shoulder or knee in the weeks after surgery, and they feel a sharp pain. How can you know if you harmed the repair – and yourself – after rotator cuff surgery?

Christian asks:
I had rotator cuff surgery. About a week later, I stupidly tried to lift a bicycle with my fingertips. I immediately felt severe pain in my shoulder, and it throbbed for about 24 hours after that. My doctor says we won’t know for four to six months whether I damaged the repair. What do you look for to assess whether someone has damaged their repair?

Whether it is a rotator cuff tear or labral tear of the shoulder, ACL reconstruction of the knee, fracture of a bone or some other injury, many surgeries to fix these injuries require months to heal. Yes, we put the bone, tendon or ligament back in the right place with screws, stitches or anchors, but your body has to heal the structure in that position. That’s why we restrict certain motions and activities after surgery.

We will gradually allow more motion and strengthening exercises as the repair gets more solid. It’s a process, and one that can take a long time. The surgeon and physical therapist can speed the exercises up or slow them down based on how the patient seems to be doing.

Surgical image of a rotator cuff surgery
In this arthroscopic image looking from the side of the shoulder, the rotator cuff tendon has now been brought out to its insertion site and reattached with sutures and anchors.

If you do something to aggravate that body part, frequently it isn’t a sign of disrupting the repair. Continued pain, weakness, swelling and stiffness – especially if it is worse than it has been in the previous week or two – can represent damage.

In this video, I discuss what signs surgeons and physical therapists look for to determine if you have reinjured yourself and why it can be hard to know for sure for a while after surgery.

Also read:
Ask Dr. Geier: Swelling and stiffness after meniscus surgery
Ask Dr. Geier – Is pain normal after plica surgery?

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