Recovery After Shoulder Surgery: What to Expect

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
man holding aching shoulder

Shoulder surgery is just one step toward improved shoulder function. What happens after surgery is at least as important as what happens during surgery. If you ignore your doctor’s orders and resume activity too soon, you could damage your shoulder. If you take it easy, gradually increase your activity, and participate in physical therapy, you’re more likely to experience the full benefits of shoulder surgery.

Shoulder Surgery Recovery 

Your shoulder surgery recovery will depend on the type of surgery you have, as well as your overall health. Some people spend a night or longer in the hospital after surgery; others go home a few hours after surgery. Full recovery can take anywhere from a few weeks to six months.

Wearing a sling

After surgery, your arm will be in a sling. The sling helps support your arm and prevents unwanted movement that could disturb healing. Wear your sling as directed after surgery. If you do not wear your sling, your joint may move out of position.

Planning ahead for restrictions

Plan to take it easy after surgery. You may not be able to drive for a few weeks, so make arrangements to get rides as needed. You should not lift anything heavier than a cup of coffee after surgery, and you should not reach, lift, push or pull with your affected arm until your doctor says it’s okay.

Relieving pain

Pain after surgery is normal. Your doctor will send you home with a prescription for pain medication. Do not wait for the pain to become severe before you take your medication; if you do, it may be difficult to get your pain under control. Adequate pain relief will help you get the rest and sleep you need to heal. You may find it helpful to take a dose of pain medication approximately 30 to 60 minutes before planned physical therapy or exercise sessions.

Cleaning the wound

You may have one or more bandages after surgery, with stitches or staples closing the surgical incision underneath. Keep your bandages clean and dry. If you notice excessive drainage, redness, swelling, or odor, call your doctor right away, as these symptoms can signal infection.

Your doctor will check your wound at a follow up appointment a week or so after surgery. At this time, the physician may remove your stitches or staples.

Moving your shoulder joint

Physical therapy and strengthening exercises are an important part of shoulder surgery recovery. Do your exercises every day, as instructed by your physical therapist or physician. Physical therapy may continue over several months.

Arthroscopic Shoulder Surgery Recovery 

Recovery from arthroscopic shoulder surgery is typically quicker than recovery from open shoulder surgery. However, full recovery will still take at least a few weeks, and may take months. As with open shoulder surgery, you will wear a sling, treat your pain, check your incisions, and arrange the logistical aspects, such as transportation and time off work.

Your doctor can help you understand what to expect after your arthroscopic shoulder surgery. Specific recovery times for minimally invasive surgeries depend on the complexity of the procedure and other factors.

Time Off Work 

According to the Cleveland Clinic, most people can return to work two months after shoulder surgery. If you do not have a physically demanding job, you may be able to return to work sooner. If you have a physically demanding job that requires you to routinely lift or reach for objects, you may be off work longer.

Before surgery, talk to your doctor about your job and likely recovery timeline, including physical therapy appointments. If you experience complications during or after surgery, you may need additional time off work. Your doctor can help you communicate with your employer, if needed.

Shoulder Surgery Recovery Tips 

There’s a lot you can do to facilitate your recovery and healing:

  • Plan ahead. Before surgery, make and freeze some easy meals, or plan to have meals delivered. Have the laundry done and set aside some easy-to-put-on clothes. Schedule time off work.

  • Be patient. Full recovery takes months, and some days will be better than others. Notice gradual improvements. Don’t push yourself; trying to do too much, too soon can lead to injury and delay healing.

  • Exercise daily.  A full workout is not necessary. Do your strengthening and flexibility exercises, as directed by your doctor or physical therapist

  • Check with your doctor before resuming activity. No matter how good your arm feels, it’s better to err on the side of caution. Do not resume sports, housework, or hobby activities without first checking with your doctor. 

Most people feel significantly better after full recovery from shoulder surgery.

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  1. Shoulder Surgery - Discharge. MedlinePlus, National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
  2. Shoulder Replacement. Cleveland Clinic.
  3. Using Your Shoulder After Replacement Surgery. MedlinePlus, National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
  4. Shoulder Replacement. MedlinePlus, National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
  5. Shoulder Joint Replacements. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
  6. Shoulder Arthroscopy. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Oct 4
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