Rotator cuff repair is notoriously challenging to recover from. Not only is it generally painful, but it also requires adherence to a very specific protocol. Progressing too slowly results in prolonged stiffness and pain, while progressing too quickly risks the rotator cuff repair failing to heal. I recommend the following 4 steps.
The first step begins at the time of surgery and ends 2 weeks after surgery. During this phase of rehabilitation I recommend minimizing any motion of your shoulder. Performing active finger, wrist, and elbow exercises is encouraged without limitation, but try to minimize any shoulder range of motion. Avoid any lifting, pushing, or pulling (even using only your hand) because it is really impossible to isolate your shoulder. You will be in an abduction sling, which allows the shoulder to rest, and takes tension off of the rotator cuff repair. To get dressed, and for hygiene, you will obviously have to temporarily remove the sling. Any motion of the shoulder during this stage must be passive only. The best way to accomplish this is via pendulum exercises.
Step 2 involves intentional passive range of motion exercises. During this stage you still need to avoid any active range of motion. This is often difficult for patients. Following along with me in the accompanying video will very helpful. Stretching needs to continue on a daily basis from this point until you have full, symmetric range of motion with your other shoulder.
Step 3 involves active range of motion. This is how we normally move around. Stretching should continue every day. No strengthening should occur yet.
As you enter the final stage of rotator cuff rehabilitation, you will now add strengthening exercises. Strengthening should be done 2-3 times per week only. It is not appropriate to perform resistance exercises on a daily basis. The exercise stimulates the muscle to grow, it then needs a few days to actually grow.
Most patients will continue to make progress with regard to range of motion, strength, endurance, and pain for an entire year following surgery. While the process is lengthy and unpleasant, careful adherence to this protocol will minimize the chance of ongoing stiffness and help prevent the rotator cuff from not healing. Many patients will need to continue stretching and strengthening for many months beyond what I have outlined above. This is normal, and anticipated. Continue stretching until you have achieved symmetry with your other shoulder. Continue strengthening until you are able to do all desired activities. most patients will report ongoing progress for an entire year following surgery.
I began playing ice hockey when I was 7 years old. When I was an orthopedic resident in New York City we formed a Hospital for Joint Diseases orthopedic hockey team. We had the unique opportunity to play outside in central park and also at Chelsea Piers with a view of the Hudson river and the New York skyline.
In spite of the violent reputation ice hockey has, I never personally sustained any significant injury. Until one evening around midnight (we had terrible ice times) when I was involved in a collision deep in my defensive zone. The back of my left shoulder made contact with the boards and I felt a zing of pain into the side of my arm. I immediately had difficulty raising my arm. Thankfully, it was toward the end of the game.
I liberally applied ice when I got home, but when I woke up in the morning, I still couldn't actively raise my arm. I was fairly certain my injury was a rotator cuff contusion, and not a rotator cuff tear due to the mechanism of injury, and therefore would be self-limited. This proved to be correct, and by that afternoon, my active range of motion had returned, albeit with some pain.
Confident my pain would improve as the contusion healed, I went about my normal daily activities for the next several weeks. I grew somewhat concerned however when the pain wasn't decreasing, but rather it was increasing.
As a physician, working with world-renowned orthopedic surgeons who would be happy to assist me, I instead chose to ignore it. My life was too busy to deal with my shoulder. I could work, and for the most part I could compartmentalize the pain.
Working at shoulder level or below was essentially normal and pain-free. But, if I forgot and suddenly reached for something, a knife-like jab brought my shoulder's issues front and center. After several months went by, I began to feel that my first choice of treatment (doing nothing) had failed.
I finally examined my shoulder objectively and noted that although my strength was normal, I had lost some range of motion. More interestingly, I had lost not only active range of motion, but passive range of motion as well. At this instant I understood why my pain wasn't getting better. I had developed a frozen shoulder. Now everything made sense.
At this point, I began my rehabilitation program. Everyday after work I applied ice to my shoulder for about 20 minutes. I purchased an ice machine to assist with this. I tried traditional stretching techniques, but was disappointed with the results. I was able to achieve intense pain, but absolutely no increase in range of motion. I actually felt I was getting worse. Frustration is an understatement.
A possible treatment for a frozen shoulder that has been resistant to all nonoperative measures is a manipulation under anesthesia. The surgeon essentially forces the joint through a range of motion, tearing the tight tissues. This is something I clearly hoped to avoid.
I recognized that biologic tissues are viscoelastic. I felt that based on this characteristic a stretch done gently, but for longer duration could be more effective. And so I began stretching differently. I measured the duration of stretch in minutes as opposed to seconds. I got to the painful endpoint and held it under tension for as long as I could tolerate it. Knowing that the longer I stretched the better it would be I increased the duration of my stretching to 30 minutes or more. Stretching hurts. I reminded myself that in spite of the pain I was experiencing, I was not creating damage.
To maintain a stretch of this duration requires you to relax. The best position for me was to lay on the floor on my back and attempt to simultaneously touch my shoulder, elbow and wrist to the floor at the same time. I added some weight to my hand to increase the stretch and watched TV.
I did this routine every day. At first I wasn't sure it was helping. But then I instinctively reached for something without thinking. Something that had previously caused a jolt of pain. And I felt no pain at all. This motivated me to add weight and time to the stretching program. Within a few more weeks my shoulder pain had resolved and I had regained normal range of motion.
This method has made surgery for frozen shoulder very rare in my practice.
When I first describe this technique to my patients, they seem incredulous. Most have already been through a course of physical therapy and are very frustrated. They presented to me to have an operation. But with very few exceptions (sometimes patients with diabetes have very resistant frozen shoulders), the vast majority of patients can avoid the operating room using this method.
I will upload some pictures of how I recommend stretching in an upcoming post.
Orthopedic Surgeon focused on the entire patient, not just a single joint.